- December 3, 2009
- The New Yorker
- Posted by David Denby
Before offering my list of the immortal ten, a few more words in reaction to the reaction to “Inglourious Basterds,” which I reviewed this summer. Young friends, Jewish and not, have spoken about it in the following spirit: “Why shouldn’t Jews have some fun? Where is it written that Jews shall not carve swastikas in the foreheads of their enemies and bash them with baseball bats and annihilate them by fire?”
It is true; it is nowhere written. And the Old Testament does not necessarily forbid revenge. The Lord speaks through Samuel to Saul as follows: “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” (I Samuel, 15)
Okay, but posthumous revenge as a redemptive pop fantasy? I doubt that Ezekiel would see much point to it. Consider that many people who have written about the Nazis, whether as a survivor of the camps, like Primo Levi, or as a theorist of modernity, like Hannah Arendt, have said that totalitarianism, in its thoroughness, makes acts of individual heroism and personal honor virtually meaningless. The Nazis consciously wanted to eliminate martyrdom as a morally significant act. But Tarantino, as A. O. Scott noted in passing in the Times, has been schooled by Asian martial-arts films, where insult and revenge is invariably the spring of action. Honor and vengeance are everything for Tarantino; they settle the case.
I don’t mean to imply that Tarantino needs to consult my favorite weighty books in order to make a movie, but a little common sense might help: His movie-fed revenge reflex is idiotic in relation to the context he established in “Basterds.” The representation of Jews and Nazis was just trivial—bizarrely beside the point. And I would ask the movie’s fans to look again and notice how slovenly the filmmaking becomes after the opening scene in the French farmhouse.
But that’s enough of that. In no particular order, here’s what I admired most in 2009:
- “The Hurt Locker”: Kathryn Bigelow understands that an action movie has to be coherent in space—you have to know where the American soldiers are in relation to the bombs that they’re trying to defuse. Hair-raising. With a great performance by Jeremy Renner.
- “The White Ribbon”: The dread-master Michael Haneke’s portrait of a guilty Northern German town just before the First World War. The long takes and crisp black-and-white cinematography produce an aura of vague but sinister stillness. You come out of it feeling bruised and contented at the same time.
- “The Messenger”: Oren Moverman’s affecting account of the lives of two very different soldiers—Woody Harrelson’s lifer and Ben Foster’s guilty war hero, easing back into civilian existence—who have to bring the bad news to the parents and spouses of soldiers killed in Iraq. It sounds grim, I know, but it’s so bracingly written and played that it’s completely absorbing.
- “Funny People”: Judd Apatow’s intricately woven portrait of a lonely and miserable comic actor (Adam Sandler, playing a nasty version of himself) turns into an examination of the specialness of comics and a funny-mournful lament over their distance from ordinary life. The happy jeers aimed at the movie’s weak box-office performance were a perfect example of how bizarrely values have gone askew for the people who do nothing but count the change.
- “Adventureland”: Greg Mottola’s lovely memory of a misspent summer at a tacky Pittsburgh amusement park in the early eighties. Kristen Stewart turns those eyes on Jesse Eisenberg, a toothless non-vampire, as he struggles toward manhood.
- “Up”: Pixar’s latest triumph. Touching, exhilarating, hilarious. Who can forget “the cone of shame”?
- “The Last Station”: Christopher Plummer as Leo Tolstoy at eighty-two and Helen Mirren as Sofya, his wife of forty-eight years, fighting over the great man’s will. Elemental and grand, without a trace of stiffness. Michael Hoffman wrote and directed.
- “Me and Orson Welles”: Christian McKay is mesmerizing as the twenty-two-year-old theatrical genius, a vaunting, bombastic son of a bitch who galvanizes the new-born Mercury Theatre company in 1937. Zac Efron is not bad as the cocky kid from New Jersey who bluffs his way into the company. Animated by Richard Linklater’s obvious love of the theatre. Who knew?
- “Fantastic Mr. Fox”: The look of it is enchanting—intentionally creaky stop-motion with puppets posed against a crafts-fair mock-up of downtown Bath, England. A combined caper movie and art-history triumph.
- “Up in the Air”: The movie’s many ambitions (to be utterly cool and all heart) don’t quite mesh together, and the last third is actually a little boring. But what’s good in Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Walter Kirn’s novel is very good—especially George Clooney and Vera Farmiga as two pros in business and in bed carrying on an affair in blank airport hotels and talking as dirty as Bacall and Bogart in “The Big Sleep.”
Honorable Mention: “Broken Embraces,” “Public Enemies,” “Invictus,” “Duplicity,” “An Education,” “Crazy Heart,” “(500) Days of Summer,” “Tyson, ” Food Inc.”