While, more or less, the films of 2009 have been generally disappointing, the best of my film rentals from previous years were everything 2009 wasn't: exciting, electric, and thought provoking. I find that the older and crankier I get, the harsher my grading becomes, so color me surprised that I ended up with seven A-worthy films (two of which came over the same weekend!) at the end of the year. Without further ado, here are, in a rough descending order, the 22 best film rentals I saw in 2009. If you haven't seen these films, I urge you to stop everything you are doing and check them out now. Why suffer through 2009's shit crop of bad films when you can enjoy these flicks?
Jean-Luc Godard's wild mix of sexual politics, male/female relationships, war and 60's pop culture is both the precursor to his wacky later political films like Week End and Tout Va Bien and the main reason why I want to live in 60's France. Breathless may be Godard's masterpiece from a technical stand point, but Masculin féminin is simply my favorite from his massive filmography. Bonus points: Jean-Pierre Léaud's best non-Antoine Doinel performance.
I'll Cry Tomorrow
A clinically insane biopic of alcoholic Lillian Roth led by a ballsy, go-for-broke performance from Susan Hayward. I don't think Intervention has ever made alcoholism look this disgusting and degrading. My original thoughts here.
The male precursor to Bergman's Persona. Young playboy James Fox hires my imaginary boyfriend Dirk Bogarde as his butler but, eventually, relationship dynamics change to the point that we are not sure who is the master and who is the slave anymore. The third act is so indescribably nutsy it has to be seen to be believed.
Ballad of a Soldier
Between this and The Cranes Are Flying, it appears that the go-to country for dreamy romantic melodramas in the late 50's was, of all places, the Soviet Union.
A Woman is a Woman
The random in-jokes, the way the characters play to the camera and the free-flow narrative all on display in Godard's New Wave homage to the musical exemplifies why I love his work.
Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom
I still have nightmares about this film. If you think you've seen it all, try watching Salò without getting the urge to vomit. My original thoughts here.
Design for Living
The charming and dapper Gary Cooper and Fredric March match wits with the perpetually underrated Miriam Hopkins in this utterly hilarious (and quite risqué) Ernst Lubitsch comedy.
The first Wong Kar-wai film I've seen that I fell hook, line and sinker for. The two sequences could hardly be any more different, but they both beautifully portrayed the heartbreak and pain that goes with being in love.
Nanook of the North
The first big "documentary" (there's still quite a bit of debate about that) also happens to be one of the most entertaining and all-around engrossing films of the silent era. Who knew that Eskimoes lived such fascinating (and perilous) lives?
Two for the Road
If you get past the annoying British New Wave camera tracks, you will be surprised to discover a smart, mercilessly funny film chronicling the ups and downs of marriage. Audrey Hepburn has never been better, both as an an actress and as a style icon (oh that big hair and those sunglasses!) and Albert Finney was surprisingly bearable, even engaging in his best moments.
The King of Comedy
Minus The Departed, this is probably the most fun I've ever had with a Scorsese film. The satire is dead-on and timelier than ever in today's web-based celebrity culture.
Given its camp reputation (and the fact it stars Bette Midler and directed by Gerry Marshall), I expected a shameless melodrama in the vein of The Notebook. Well color me surprised at how emotionally honest and unmanipulative Beaches is. When the tearjerking finale came about, it earned whatever tears it was able to generate.
Another fantastic film about the perils of celebrity. Ken Russell's biopic of Rudolph Valentino may not be historically accurate, but it's one of the few films I've seen that truly captures the spirit and insanity of 1920's Hollywood.
Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga star in this indie horror movie about the horror of a family breaking up amidst an upper-class surroundings. I was so entranced by this movie I kept it an extra day and watched it again; it did not disappoint on a second viewing. My original thoughts here.
The Marriage of Maria Braun
I really need to see more Fassbinder films because I'm two for three so far and the only one I wasn't crazy about (Querelle) at least had Brad Davis as a hunky homosexual sailor who gets fucked in the ass. Maria Braun boasts a fantastic lead performance from Hanna Schygulla as a headstrong woman trying to survive the aftermath of Nazi Germany.
Intruder in the Dust
A quiet, unassuming and surprisingly down-to-earth take on race relations in post-WWII America from, of all studios, MGM. For people appalled by Hollywood's treatment of blacks during the Studio Era, seek this one out to get the bitter taste out of your mouth.
2 Days in Paris
When talking about 2007's cinematic treats, why does no one talk about this gem of a romantic comedy starring and directed by Julie Delpy? Another underrated film I cannot recommend enough.
Kings and Queen
I wasn't as entranced by it as I was by A Christmas Tale, but Desplechin's film before that masterpiece ain't too shabby either. Emmanuelle Devos has such a tricky character to navigate (it's never quite clear whether she is the martyr or the villain of this piece) but she nails it without so much as breaking a sweat.
Best of the B+'s
Hiroshima, Mon Amour
I was expecting a pretentious "art" film that I would struggle to get through but, instead, ended up with a heartbreaking doomed romance that I couldn't get enough of.
I've seen a couple other Ozu films and was decidedly underwhelmed by them. Tokyo Story, on the other hand, completely captivated me. Setsuko Hara was an unexpected delight as the dutiful sister who is the only sibling who doesn't blatantly ignore her parents when they make the journey from their country home to the city to visit them.
Two English Girls
Truffaut's massively underrated tragedy about a Frenchman (Jean-Pierre Léaud) who spends years romantically involved with two sisters. Perpetually downbeat, Two English Girls is almost too heartbreaking to watch. Bonus points: the costumes are absolutely to die for. I seriously want JPL's wardrobe.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
This film is worth it simply for the final scene, a verbal throwdown between Dame Maggie Smith's shady teacher and Pamela Franklin as her disgruntled former student wise to her manipulative ways. The inspirational teacher drama with a twist.