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The Year in Arts: Movies

There were special moments that many may have missed

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / December 27, 2009

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One of the most exciting things I saw in a movie this year was a shootout down the spiraling ramp of the Guggenheim Museum. The movie that contains it, “The International,’’ was a decent suspense thriller with Clive Owen and Naomi Watts that came and went last winter. I spent the year with that film, and that sequence, on my mind because it was the first of several Hollywood movies for thinking adults that adults didn’t think they wanted to see.

American theaters were full of people under 25. But increasingly their parents are staying home, skipping movies that would otherwise seem tailor-made for them. A couple of months after “The International,’’ Owen was back, this time opposite Julia Roberts, in “Duplicity,’’ a romantic caper from Tony Gilroy, who also made “Michael Clayton.’’ It got better reviews, and, in Roberts, had a bigger star, and yet it didn’t take off, either. (Clive, it’s not your fault).

I’m worried. While the perception for years has been that Hollywood doesn’t make serious movies, this year, there seemed to be more than usual - including “The Soloist,’’ a wonderful Los Angeles drama with Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx that also went nowhere. Movie attendance was up in 2009, but a significant segment of the population has been so underserved for so long that they no longer regularly attend theatrical releases.

Some of this might be timing. “The Soloist’’ was originally supposed to be released at the end of 2008 for Oscar consideration. It was moved to the spring, and the move seemed like a refreshing act of counterprogramming. But perhaps we’ve been conditioned to think that a serious movie with strong performances, imaginative filmmaking, and a deep emotional center comes out only in December, so we can spend the first months of the next year going on Oscar binges.

In so many ways, “The Soloist,’’ “The International,’’ “Duplicity,’’ “A Serious Man,’’ and even the trashy “State of Play,’’ with Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, and Helen Mirren, feel like a dying breed of mainstream movie - no effects, sequel, or 3-D. But, you ask, what about “The Blind Side’’? The Sandra Bullock movie is, indeed, a feel-good smash. But it cuts several dramatic corners on the way to warming your heart. It’s a young adult’s version of grown-up entertainment.

The future is in large-scale contraptions, studded with stars but not carried by them. Downey’s December release this year was not an Oscar movie but a theme-park ride called “Sherlock Holmes.’’ (“Iron Man 2’’ arrives next year.) The chasm between these gargantuan productions and more mid-size affairs has been widening, like the splitting earth in “2012,’’ and adult audiences are falling into the void.

Don’t get me wrong. This year some of my favorite movies are superproductions. OK, one of them - James Cameron’s “Avatar.’’ These giant films can advance the art of moviemaking, or at least not soil it.

And it almost doesn’t matter whether the films come from Hollywood or its margins. It’s true that a film like “Duplicity’’ has a better shot at a mass audience than the independently-financed combat movie “The Hurt Locker.’’ At every barbecue and pool party I attended this summer, I tried to make a case for Kathryn Bigelow’s intense Iraq film. The reaction tended to be a sincere “I’ll check it out.’’ Other critics loudly beat a drum for the film, too. It never got the audience it deserved, but now it’s back in theaters: The upside to the onslaught of year-end prizes is that sometimes good movies win.

The uninspired moviegoer missed out on special moments. There was the chance to observe a handful of couples derailed by car trouble and dancing to, of all things, the Commodores’ “Nightshift’’ in Claire Denis’s “35 Shots of Rum.’’ And there was the unbeatable only-in-a-movie-theater experience of watching Charlotte Gainsbourg bludgeon Willem Dafoe in Lars von Trier’s overly loathed “Antichrist.’’

Believe me, the movie’s powers are considerably enhanced by a paying audience of the shrieking, the amused, and the appalled. Yet it was the toughest sell of the year.

Part of the trouble with our movies is the steady constriction of the industry that produces and distributes them. As studios disappear or are absorbed into larger companies, the natural consequence is fewer films which come and go quickly. Locally, there’s an additional wrinkle - simply not enough screens.

Many of the movies I loved or admired in the last 12 months have yet to open at a theater in Boston: Lucrecia Martel’s haunted Argentine class drama, “The Headless Woman’’; Carlos Reygadas’s ethereal Mennonite love story, “Silent Light’’; Max Färberböck’s grim World War II drama, “A Woman in Berlin’’; Terence Davies’s poetic documentary memoir “Of Time and the City’’; and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s desolate melodrama “Three Monkeys.’’ Not all of these movies are great, but each deserves an audience outside of Cannes, Los Angeles, and New York.

Two of the very best films of the year - “The White Ribbon’’ and “Police, Adjective’’ - are scheduled to open in Cambridge on Jan. 15. But rather than wait until next December, I’ve included them on my list now. They were highlights of my moviegoing experience in 2009 - and who knows how far into 2010 they’ll last.

Here are the 10 best.

35 SHOTS OF RUM On the surface, Denis has made a family drama about a Frenchman, his daughter, and their friends. It is also a film quietly about how people of color should be depicted on film - not as anthropological objects but as complex people. Like a sculptor, Denis whittles, so that by the last shot we have an exquisite emotional object. The camera hangs close to these faces. The editing tells you only what you need to know. And a group of strangers to you when you entered the movie theater feel very much like people you can’t get out of your heart.

THE WHITE RIBBON A 2-hour and 40-minute black-and-white film about a small village in pre-war Germany beset by strange, violent acts, possibly committed by children, is a challenge. But the stressful sensation it produced, through powerfully restrained storytelling, is the kind of experience I want in a movie. Director Michael Haneke might be the filmmaker of the decade, repeatedly peeling back the dark sides of the soul and the psyche. In this nearly flawless grim fairy tale, the view is bleak but breathtaking.

POLICE, ADJECTIVE A surly Bucharest cop investigates a kid selling pot. His boss wants him to make an arrest. He wants to be certain the right people are rounded up. What begins as an investigative procedural on the streets of Bucharest becomes, rather astonishingly, a kind of tragicomedy that challenges both the spirit of Romanian totalitarianism and the dictionary. In the hands of writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu, language goes from being just a means of communication to being a humiliating booby trap.

AVATAR Cameron’s “Dances With Blue People’’ is politically deranged and as tin-eared as all his movies. Yet it’s popular art at its zenith. Very few directors in Hollywood can tell a story with more exhilarating efficiency. At least twice, I sat, with my crummy RealD glasses on, and let out a “Wow.’’ This is the moviegoing dream - to see what’s on screen and experience a Liz Lemon “30 Rock’’ moment of uncontrollable lust: I want to go to there.

PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL ‘PUSH’ BY SAPPHIRE It’s improbable that we would get one movie about an overweight, undereducated black teenager, but 2009 was feeling generous and gave us two. “Precious,’’ about a pregnant Harlem 16-year-old (Gabourey Sidibe, excellent), is the anti-“Blind Side’’ - grotesque, lurid, and feel-bad. But Lee Daniels’s forcefully acted melodrama has tremendous personality. As in the British film “An Education,’’ whose heroine thinks she knows it all, the glory of Daniels’s movie is that we get to watch a woman discover she knew more than she ever thought.

LA DANSE Frederick Wiseman goes to the Paris Opera Ballet and discovers he can’t look away. He watches rehearsals, performances, administrative meetings. It should all be a bore, but Wiseman exalts us with a sort of transparent privilege. He’s sharing with us both the honor of his eavesdropping and the rigorous nature of producing fine art.

THE HURT LOCKER For the better part of a decade, Bigelow has been making muscular action movies. This year, she gave us her finest. In part a work of suspense, in part a movie about work, the film, which follows an army bomb squad, is one of the few to home in on an aspect of our current wars and put the danger right in our tray of nachos. As the fearless chief defuser, Jeremy Renner gives an uncannily serene performance. He walks right up to the IEDs and gets busy. It’s the rush that turns him on, not heroism. Bigelow cautiously taps into the rush and lets us feel it, too.

THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX Uli Edel’s epic about the rise and collapse of Germany’s notorious left-wing political outfit is absurd, unromantic, and electrifying. The scenes come at you like a brick through a window. We feel both what drew these kids to radical terrorism and what did them in. It’s a blistering piece of cinematic rock ’n’ roll.

THE SOLOIST Ah, another Hollywood movie about a black guy and his white savior. The difference is that these two men, inventively acted by Foxx and Downey, don’t simply need each other. They need their vocations - Downey is a journalist; Foxx, a homeless schizophrenic musical prodigy. The daring of the movie is that it enters Foxx’s head and gives us a portrait of an increasingly, surprisingly strange man, then looks at the people on Los Angeles’ Skid Row who’ve fallen through similar cracks.

VALENTINO: THE LAST EMPEROR Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary presents the great Italian fashion designer as an endangered species of entertainer. It’s a humanizing portrait but a frank one, too, that doesn’t stint on the ridiculousness of Valentino’s extravagance. Eventually, a certain sadness takes over, and we’re left with the moving if comic idea that the pampered artist is really a living Fellini movie.

AND: “24 City,’’ “Still Walking,’’ “In the Loop,’’ “The Informant!,’’ “Summer Hours,’’ “The Windmill Movie,’’ “The Beaches of Agnès,’’ “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,’’ “Two Lovers,’’ the marriage-cycle montage in “Up,’’ the Guggenheim shootout in “The International,’’ the farmhouse sequence and card-game scene in “Inglourious Basterds,’’ and the photo gallery at the end of “The Hangover.’’

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

WESLEY'S LIST
1. '35 Shots of Rum'
2. 'The White Ribbon'
3. 'Police, Adjective'
4. 'Avatar'
5. 'Precious'
6. 'La Danse'
7. 'The Hurt Locker'
8. 'The Baader Meinhof Complex'
9. 'The Soloist'
10. 'Valentino: The Last Emperor'

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