An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Tyranny of Calendars: Four movies that would've made my 2009 best-of list had I seen them in time

The fractious nature of indie/foreign film distribution in the U.S. doesn't always agree with the arbitrary corralling of movie lists into yearly groups. It's one thing to place a film under the year of its commercial release rather than of its original premiere, but what happens when, say, the commercial release only reaches New York and L.A. in 2009 and hits other cities (e.g. my Chicago) in 2010? If we believe that the practice of listmaking matters even a little bit, these films can fall through the cracks: not always seen in time for consideration in 2009, and inapplicable for lists at the end of 2010.

My 2009 year-end post was already bloated and unwieldy—a reflection of the year's cinematic richness. (I just couldn't help myself from going big.) But if I'd been able to see these four films—three of which I saw at the Gene Siskel Film Center this year, and the other I just caught up with on DVD—I'd have made room for them somewhere, knocking off other titles in either the list proper or the honorable mentions. Consider them all worthy additions to your Netflix queue.

• Andrew Bujalski's Beeswax is a great leap forward for the father of mumblecore, a dryly comic study in hipster passive-aggression that's riveting and meaningful in ways that upend all expectations about Bujalski and the DIY movement he helped create. Shot on warm 35mm film that makes it look more like the American classics of the '70s than the video-noise of today's digital youth, Beeswax transcends mumblecore by interrogating conversational tactics rather than simply having actors stumble over words for the sake of naturalism; just about every dialogue exchange in the film is fraught with doublespeak, ulterior motives or barely-concealed resentment. The dramatic stakes are still relatively low, but Bujalski finds the tension in the everyday. This is the kind of American independent film event that's genuinely galvanizing, or at least should be. Would have easily made my top ten of '09 if it had come to Chicago in time.

• Ursula Meier's Home is a strange and wonderful French film that didn't receive much critical attention upon its NY/LA micro-release late last year; it was only on my radar because Mike D'Angelo and his weird Jim Jones cult of cinephiles voted it one of the top 20 films of 2009. I appreciated Meier's fresh take on the family drama: instead of charting a dysfunctional clan's conflicts and eventual unity, Meier begins with an unusually close-knit, content family and gradually bulldozes their happiness via the reopening of the long-dormant highway across from the family's secluded house. The weirdness mounts organically so that by the time drastic measures are taken for the sake of the family's protection (I'm being vague to avoid spoilers)—measures that would feel like bullshit in a lesser film—I was entirely credulous. Tough to describe this one, honestly, so maybe just take my word that it's a beauty.

• Noah Buschel's The Missing Person is a fascinating attempt to update the tradition of the 1970s anti-detective movie (Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, Arthur Penn's Night Moves) for post-9/11 America. Its greatest asset is the explosively brilliant character actor Michael Shannon, who won my loyalty forever with his work in William Friedkin's Bug and Jeff Nichols' Shotgun Stories and takes on more interesting roles every year. Shannon's skill at suggesting his characters' internal lives makes him perfect for the role of a lost, world-weary private detective, drifting numbly through life; it turns out his condition is rooted in personal tragedy, one that comes to the fore when the tail job he's hired for turns out to have 9/11-related resonance. The plotting is a long way from elegant, but no good detective story is ever about its plot anyway. Buschel nails the elegiac tone and the Long Goodbye-esque incongruity of putting an old-school PI in the modern world. Although the title refers to a literal missing person (again, think 9/11), it's also clearly referring to the detective, and watching the film I fondly recalled the classic tagline of Night Moves: "Maybe he would find the girl. Maybe he would find himself."

• Scott Teems' That Evening Sun, a hit at SXSW '09, is probably the least accomplished film of this quartet, if only for its incoherent third act. But for a while, at least, it's an outstanding character study and showcase for Hal Halbrook as a get-off-my-lawn oldster without, um, a lawn: he escapes from the old folks' home only to find that his longtime farm property has been rented out by his son to a family of no-goodniks. First-time director Teems loads up the film with regional flavor (it's set in Tennessee) and grants humanity and perspective to all the characters, even the ones trying to screw over poor old Hal. Movies about (and starring) octogenarians are so rare that I'm inclined to celebrate this one's virtues and overlook its flaws, which are mostly relegated to the unsatisfying ending anyway. In an added bit of sad real-life resonance, Holbrook's dead wife in the film is played in flashbacks by his recently-deceased actual wife, Dixie Carter.

Note: I'd originally planned to write this post after seeing the French animated film A Town Called Panic, which I regrettably missed in its February run at the Music Box. But I can't find any information about a future R1 DVD release, so I have no idea when I'll be able to see it. But I'm taking an "innocent until proven guilty" approach and, for now, assuming that it belongs on this list of 2009's bastard children.

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