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In this unsettling mystery, a withdrawn girl assumes the identity of a missing classmate after standing in for her in a police reconstruction.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
7. Sugar (dir: Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden), 15
8. Wendy and Lucy (dir: Kelly Reichardt), 15
9. Sleep Furiously (dir: Gideon Koppel), U
10. Tony Manero (dir: Pablo Larrain), 18
Turkey of the Year
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.