Isn't it always the way? You think you've seen enough movies to make your list and then a couple days and weeks later, you stumble across a few new movies so good that they beg to be included as well. Well, that's how it happened with me, and suffice it to say, it's been a damn good week or so of movie watching. Rather than edit the list, I'll give you some write-ups right here of the films I would subsequently include on the list along with their approximate position (3a would be between 3 and 4 on the original list, etc.). And since there's three of them, that brings the 2009 list up to an even 20, which is a much better number than 17 anyway! Silver linings and all that. Happy movie-going!
3a. Two Lovers
Even considering the praise that has been lavished on James Gray's '70s-style, grittily realistic romance, it's still somehow been vastly underrated... or maybe it was just under-recognized by me, before now. Whatever the case, I can't overstate the poetic, atmospheric beauty nor the piercing honesty and the appropriately anachronistic and detailed expression of pure humanity on display in this stunning film. Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is a depressive, mildly unstable man with past baggage of heartbreak, first seen engaging in a feeble suicide attempt. Working with his fairly Orthodox Jewish parents (Moni Moshonov and Isabella Rossellini, both engaging in a careful balancing act between light-hearted caricature and tender empathy) at their family dry-cleaning business, he soon comes across two women who become possible suitors. His parents want to set him up with Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw), the beautiful, smart, and sensitive daughter of another Jewish family who is in the process of taking over their business -- it would seem like a logical match. But Leonard randomly comes across a ravishing, sprightly, but equally damaged (she has a history of drug abuse) new neighbour, Michelle (a radiant and powerful Gwyneth Paltrow), and falls hard for her, and she, somewhat, for him, despite being intermittently involved with a wealthy married man (Elias Koteas).
None of this is overstated -- not the meet-cute between Michelle and Leonard, or the urges and day-to-day lives of Leonard's parents, or Michelle's dealings with her boyfriend, or any of the complications or tragedies that ensue later on -- and so Gray achieves an almost miraculous balancing act, drawing out feelings of tension, passion, disorientation, loyalty, and the always near-incomprehensible machinations of the human heart. It's one of the most startlingly real, carefully and elegantly staged romances since Before Sunset, with a lovely, dialogue and moment-based script to boot. But I'm trying to fit it into a model, which is wrong, since the film is also wonderfully unpredictable. And least predictable of all -- except maybe to those paying close attention to the actor -- is the revelatory power of Joaquin Phoenix's lead performance, nearly Brandoesque in its astonishing intensity and heartbreaking empathy. Not to be outdone, Paltrow also gives one of the most marvelous performances of her already distinguished career. Two Lovers is not only a hopeful yet complex look at love, but about life, and it's a rare film that thrills and moves you by doing little more than presenting its particular characters and letting them interact, breathe, grow, learn, and live.
13a. Bright Star
A ravishing period piece romance that's also a relatively intelligent and compelling look at fashion, literature, and the place of women in history -- and way more snappy, fun, and luxuriously moving than that lame description could suggest. Jane Campion provides not only luscious and impeccable visual design -- my God, those costumes! -- but a sharp eye for character detail and the larger implications of her story, connecting the particular to the universal. It helps that she has a wonderful, natural talent in the beautiful Abbie Cornish -- as Fannie Brawne, the higher-class, fashion-designing lover of 19th century English poet John Keats -- and a pitch-perfect match for her in Ben Whishaw as Keats as well as a great sparring partner for her in Paul Schneider as Charles Armitage Brown, Keats's loyal friend and confidante who disapproves of his friend's romantic choice. Witty, well-crafted dialogue is shared among all three and the film moves across its familiar story beats with seamless, exuberant ease and more thematic and narrative heft than one might expect. An emotionally, intellectually, and visually sparkling gem of a film.
17a. Big Fan
Might actually be 15a. Who knows? Anyhow, this is an oddly underlooked look at unbridled all-American sports mania from The Wrestler screenwriter Robert Siegel, making his remarkably assured directing and comedic debut. Basically a darkly funny character study of parking garage attendant and die-hard New York Giants fan Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt, a reliable TV comedy side player making a great lead performance here, carefully modulating anger, self-righteousness, and intensity), a regular contributor to late-night sports radio call-in shows who undergoes a (possibly deserved) humiliation at the hands of his favourite team's quarterback as well as his frequent on-air rival Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rappaport). But in the underdog spirit of America, this only strengthens Paul from Staten Island's determination to support his team, no matter what the cost to his body or his sanity. Oswalt is well-supported by Kevin Corrigan as his best buddy at the big games and the various actors playing his flabbergasted family. Siegel alternates tone well between darkness and light, nails the details of his hero's life, and brings it in to the end zone to score a touchdown of a hilarious point about not only sports obsession but a culture in which we define ourselves based solely (crazily) on what we support. Not afraid to go to some risky, but true in their context, places for laughs, Siegel makes this one of the sharpest and most outrageous satires of the year -- along with the equally under-appreciated Observe and Report.