2009 has been a significant year for me, film-wise. I mean this in several ways.
Just last year, I decided to embark (foolishly, I fear) on a career in play- and screen-writing.
Two of my screenplays have been produced; they are quite different in subject matter, as well as in funding and the process of creation.
Watching your own work being turned into celluloid is, needless to say, an immensely gratifying experience. But it also changes the way one views films.
I’m not necessarily more forgiving of bad work. It’s just that the imagination and effort (or lack thereof) that goes into making a film becomes more apparent to me.
Consequently, I appreciate a good picture that much more. I become more critical of crude or sloppy work, and I consider the positive influences or divisive politics underlying a project
These are the factors latent in me when I review a film, and they can be at once a benefit and a burden to my writing.
I just wanted to share that with you, before picking my Top Ten Films of 2009. (Note: Films have been considered in no particular order of merit, and were all released in Singapore in the calendar year of 2009.)
1) Let The Right One In, directed by Tomas Alfredson
A lonely ten-year-old boy learns to assert himself and fend off school bullies in the most unexpected of ways. He befriends a young female vampire and forms a deep but often dangerous bond with her. At once feeding off and bucking the current trend of American teen vampire films, this Swedish genre-bender is a strangely affecting, even profound, exploration of young love.
2) Fantastic Mr. Fox, directed by Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson's re-imagination of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s tale is a triumph of both story-telling and film technology. Using the old-fashioned method of stop-motion animation, the world of Fantastic Mr. Fox boasts an astonishing level of attention to physical detail and commitment to acting. Anderson is known for making quirky, visually and emotionally complex art films that flounder at the box office. Hopefully, with Mr. Fox, he gets the commercial returns he deserves.
3) The Wrestler, directed by Darren Aronofsky
Everybody loves a comeback kid, and what a comeback Mickey Rourke makes with this unusual sports movie about a down-and-out wrestler trying to find love and make peace with his estranged daughter. Darren Aronofsky’s success lies not only in the casting of Rourke, but in the sensitivity with which he depicts the pain felt by mediocre warriors engaged in a faux sport.
4) Gomorra, directed by Matteo Garrone
This docudrama about a notorious Naples crime family will overturn all your impressions of the Italian mafia. Unlike the rich and glamorous Corleones in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), this clan thrives out of economic hardship. Made in extremely hostile conditions, with scenes of hardship and despair painstakingly chronicled in verité style, this film was deservedly praised at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.
5) District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp
Together with Avatar, District 9 ranks as one of the most original alien movies of all time, let alone in 2009. And while Avatar depicts a wholly imagined ecological world, District 9 is rooted in the grim reality of contemporary South Africa. The story follows the misadventures of a gormless civil servant (Sharlto Copley), who is turned into the one of the prawn-like aliens he is meant to evict from a squalid township in Johannesburg. References to government corruption and racial discrimination are unmissable, even amidst the eye-popping, heart-pounding action.
6) The Cove, directed by Louie Psihoyos
This award-winning documentary is as much about a man’s redemption as it is about marine conservation. Dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry, who helped bring the Flipper TV series to mass audiences in the 1960s, has been nursing a crisis of conscience for triggering a global spike in dolphin hunting. Now in his late 60s, O'Barry is bent on publicising the annual massacre of dolphins in a secluded cove in the Japanese town of Taiji. Working with O’Barry and a team of committed environmentalists, activist-director Louie Psihoyos infiltrates the cove with state-of-the-art aquatic film equipment to expose the cruel practices of a controversial industry.
7) The Informant!, directed by Steven Soderbergh
Based on an unbelievable true story, The Informant! tells the story of Mark Whitacre, a director of chemical giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) who in the early 1990s played a key role in exposing price-fixing activities in the global chemical industry to the FBI. As the story unfolds, we discover the ostensibly decent-living Whitacre (Matt Damon, impressive as ever) to be driven by anything but altruism and public justice. In fact, the man is chronically two-faced, and as his lies pile up, the distinction between truth and fiction began to blur. Soderbergh’s film is itself a clever and hilarious replication of Whitacre’s identity crisis, and his compulsive need for artifice and deception.
8) The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow
The theme and tagline of the film is “War is an addiction”. Kathryn Bigelow, directing Jeremy Renner in a spectacular performance, trains her eye on the psychology of a bomb disposal expert, and paints a portrait of humanity teetering beneath the clinical demands of war. A harrowing film which will no doubt receive a bundle of Oscar nominations.
9) Up, directed by Pete Doctor and Bob Peterson
Something about this picture raises it above the rest of Pixar’s other offerings, and brings it a touch closer to the thoughtful daring of Japanese animation, particularly the work of Hayao Miyazaki. The artwork couldn’t be more different, but that’s beside the point. The writers and directors of this film, Pete Doctor and Bob Peterson, have made an unusually adult cartoon about a retiree, Carl Fredrickson, struggling with the geriatric blues. As Carl goes on a final adventure to fulfil his late wife’s dream of travelling to a South American peak, he comes to terms with his life, and wins himself a surrogate grandson. A funny, bittersweet film rendered in the most colourful and inventive of images.
10) Avatar, directed by James Cameron
This film took James Cameron more than ten years to make, and his prodigious talent and effort shows. In terms of special effects, this is a revolutionary film; Cameron’s animation team has created a fully-realised alien ecology that makes the most of 3-D technology. The story is simple and familiar, but irresistible nonetheless. A paraplegic ex-Marine (Sam Worthington) is sent to the alien planet of Pandora to colonise its indigenous people, the Na'vi. But he falls in love with the community and their way of life, and ends up helping them repel the human invaders. The film’s leftist politics is unmistakable, but what comes across is its heart and clear, fantastical vision.
Ken Kwek is a playwright and screenwriter. His film credits include The Ballad of Vicki and Jake (2005), The Blue Mansion (2009) and the forthcoming Kidnapper (2010).