Much has already been written, and letters penned to newspaper editors, about the perceived grimness of many of the best Australian films, which presumably accounts for their lack of box-office appeal. It was no surprise, then, that after Australia (which premiered last year), the biggest commercial success was Mao’s Last Dancer, a competently made film from Bruce Beresford that tells an inspirational true story, but which is neither Beresford’s best work, nor – by any stretch – the best Australian film of a vintage year.
The old debate between art and commerce will doubtless drag on, but it’s interesting that the mostly enjoyable and potentially crowd-pleasing Charlie & Boots underperformed, despite the amiable teaming of Paul Hogan and Shane Jacobson.
There were so many good Australian films this year that quite a few didn’t make my top ten, including Last Ride, the best photographed film of the year, in which Hugo Weaving gave a fine performance as a man on the run with his small son; Disgrace, the intelligent adaptation by Steve Jacobs of J.M. Coetzee’s challenging novel; The Combination and Cedar Boys, which both dealt passionately with the lives of Australians with Middle-Eastern backgrounds; Van Diemen’s Land, a stunningly photographed film about Tasmania’s infamous cannibal convict; The Boys are Back, Scott Hicks’s film about a father-son relationship; Balibo, Robert Connolly’s controversial take on the tragic events that took place in Timor in 1975; and Mary and Max, Adam Elliot’s clever animated film about a decidedly odd couple.
One of the highlights of the year was a blast from the past: the restoration and re-release of Canadian director Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 Wake in Fright, a shockingly abrasive outsider’s vision of outback Australia as a descent into Hell. Back in the early 70s that film, too, was dismissed as being too grim and too ugly; now it’s seen as something close to a masterwork. All credit to the tenacious archivists and others who were able to assemble the bits and pieces from around the world and reintroduce this remarkable film to audiences willing to explore Kotcheff’s bleak vision.
American cinema seemed dominated, as usual, by mediocre romantic comedies, tiresome sequels, underwhelming remakes and (more positively) a large number of clever animated films, many of them presented in the fashionable 3-D process.
And talking of fashions, the intensely annoying faux documentary, zoomy, hand-held style continued to spoil some otherwise interesting projects.
Thank goodness for Clint Eastwood, who contributed two exceptionally fine films this year (see below) and to the young directors of the new Star Trek and Watchmen (J.J. Abrams and Zack Snyder) for bringing a new vision to old formulae. I admired, too, the amazing CGI effects in 2012.
Among the highlights of foreign-language films released in cinemas this year were Pedro Almodovar’s richly melodramatic Broken Embraces, the genuinely creepy Swedish teenage vampire movie Let the Right One In (which is so much better than the Twilight films) and the Japanese Oscar-winner Departures.
Among a good crop of documentaries the best were The Cove, about the slaughter of dolphins in a Japanese fishing village, In Search of Beethoven, an exemplary musical biopic, and The September Issue, an insider’s look at clashing egos in the world of fashion journalism. I also have a very soft spot for Terence Davies’s ode to the city of his birth, Liverpool, in Of Time and the City.
Here, then, is my choice of the 10 best films of 2009, in alphabetical order:
Avatar: The plot, a mixture of The Mission, A Man Called Horse and Aliens, isn’t especially original, but James Cameron’s first feature film in 12 years amazes with its invention of the world of Pandora, with its jungles and creatures and its indigenous tribes who are forced to confront an invasion by armed forces from the First World. In many ways, the result is truly extraordinary.
Beautiful Kate: So much more than a film about incest, this emotionally wrenching film from first-time feature director Rachel Ward is an intimate study of family relationships and contains unforgettable performances from Ben Mendelsohn, Sophie Lowe, Rachel Perkins, Maeve Dermody and, as the dying patriarch, a remarkable Bryan Brown.
Blessed: Undeniably grim in theme, this Ana Kokkinos film about the relationship between mothers and children is heart-wrenching and unforgettably moving. There are great performances here from both the adults and the children, particularly Frances O’Connor as a mother faced with the terrible results of her own lifestyle.
Bright Star: Arguably Jane Campion’s finest achievement.
Camino: This award-winning Spanish film, from director Javier Fesser, which tells a true story of an apparent miracle involving a seriously ill child, passed by almost unnoticed, but it’s an extraordinary insight into a world where fundamentalism clashes with humanism.
Changeling: Clint Eastwood directed this film based on the astonishing true story of a woman (Angelina Jolie) whose child was kidnapped and who was forced by the authorities to accept a substitute. A thriller rich in period detail (the mid-1920s) and classically crafted.
Gran Torino: Eastwood again, and playing the lead as well this time, as an elderly curmudgeon who at first rejects, then embraces, the Asian family next door. A plea for racial tolerance wrapped up in a suspense thriller of the highest order.
Milk: Gus Van Sant’s biography of gay activist Harvey Milk is intelligent and thought-provoking and contains an outstanding performance from Sean Penn in the title role.
Samson & Delilah: The best Australian film of this vintage year, Warwick Thornton’s almost wordless love story about two disadvantaged aboriginal kids is distinguished by its optimism and its sad beauty.
Up: Pixar’s magnum opus, this wonderfully realised animated film (even better if seen in 3-D) takes a grumpy old man and an eager little boy on a miraculous journey of the imagination. A film that proves you don’t have to be grim to be great.