PRINT December 2009

Film: Best of 2009

Ian Birnie


1 Vincere (Marco Bellocchio) Mussolini’s scorned “first wife” descends into madness while Italy rushes to crown the Duce. Mixing Soviet montage, Expressionist lighting, silent films, newsreels, melodrama, and parody, Vincere plunges the viewer into the black hole of Fascism.

2 The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke) In a north German village ca. 1914, evil walks among the farmers and sits down with the teacher, the baron, the doctor, the midwife, the pastor, and their flaxen-haired offspring. Angst-meister Haneke’s tale of twisted Protestants and patriarchs is impossible to shake.

3 Modern Life (Raymond Depardon) A portrait of the cattle farmers whose “vie moderne” is rooted in the ancient, rocky landscape of southwestern France. Depardon packs every frame with visual information that provides further insight into his stoic subjects.

4 Bronson (Nicolas Winding Refn) A cross between Fight Club and a Paul McCarthy video. Heartthrob Tom Hardy, all twisted charm and muscled intensity, turns Britain’s infamous felon into the screen’s scariest psycho since Hannibal Lecter.

5 Léon Morin, Priest (Jean-Pierre Melville) An attractive widow skeptical of religion engages in a series of theological debates with a hunky priest whose code of honor is worthy of a samurai. Melville’s most austere and erotic film (from 1961), and this year’s most exciting revival.

6 Northless (Rigoberto Pérezcano) A migrant with a bad case of the American dream finds work and romance in a Tijuana bodega ten yards from the US border. A very small film, about a very big subject, with a terrific ending.

7 Backstory (Mark Lewis) Canadian artist Mark Lewis emphasizes the surreal aspect of rear projection by documenting father-and-son masters of this obsolete technology while trompe l’oeil images of Studio City and the Sunset Strip fill the space behind them.

8 Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson) A stop-motion fantasy that is witty, aesthetically ravishing, cinematically inventive, and mercifully free of pop culture in-jokes. As Mr. Fox, George Clooney delivers a brilliant vocal performance—sly, hip, and charming.

9 Big River Man (John Maringouin) Maringouin transforms an unpromising film premise—an overweight, fifty-two-year-old Slovenian swims the 3,300-mile Amazon River—into a darkly comic study of one man’s obsession, set against the specter of a vanishing rain forest.

10 Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu) A Romanian cop has a crisis of conscience while investigating a hash-dealing teenager, but in a climactic sequence that could be dubbed “realism, conjugated,” a hostile superior uses semantics to redefine “justice.”

Ian Birnie, the film curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has served on numerous festival juries and has programmed for the Toronto and Bangkok International Film Festivals.