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BEST FILMS OF 2009

In praise of films that refuse to follow formulas

by Giovanni Fazio

After jostling through a metal detector, having my bag searched and my mobile confiscated by stern-faced blue meanies, I slump in my cinema seat, enduring head-exploding levels of volume from the coming attractions, and unwanted infrared scrutiny from guards patrolling for video-heads looking for their latest torrent site exclusive. The film finally flickers onto the screen, and I sit hoping, somehow, to be transported, seduced, taken far from all this madness.

People think we critics are cynics. But I walk into every film — yes, even Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia” — hoping for a dream. That’s why it hurts — it’s a freaking betrayal, man! — when a filmmaker’s moves are so obvious, his come-on so transparent and hollow. It’s a depressing feeling when you sense the death-grip of the “three-act narrative” starting to squeeze all the life out of a movie while still in the first reel.

And yet, some days . . . I recall sitting between Donald Richie and Mark Schilling for “The Wrestler,” and we were all close to tears during that scene on the boardwalk where Mickey Rourke’s deadbeat dad pleads with his daughter, Evan Rachel Wood. Or chills running down my spine as Maggie Cheung’s junkie shoots up in her car in “Clean” as Brian Eno’s “Ascent” trembles on the soundtrack, a scene ripe with a sensation of premonition. If there’s one thing in common with the films below, it’s that they pull you in different directions, refuse to follow formula, and they will definitely make you feel something.

1. “The Wrestler”:

The sign of a great film is when it can take a topic you have next to no interest in — in this case, pro wrestling — and pull you into that world entirely. Mickey Rourke deserved an Oscar for his fearlessly self-referential performance as a failed fighter, and Marisa Tomei was equally naked emotionally (and more) as the jaded lap-dancer he pines for. Transcendent blue-collar filmmaking by Darren Aronofsky.

2. “Elegy”:

What is a Top 10 without a Penelope Cruz film? This one has her as a needy college student seduced by lothario prof Ben Kingsley. Based on a Philip Roth novel, the story overflows with brutal honesty regarding male sexual psychology, but Cruz and director Isabel Coixet bring a welcome feminine perspective as well. An outstanding film that clearly works as some sort of sexual Rohrshach test for anyone who views it.

3. “Waltz with Bashir”:

Israel’s ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in 1982, reimagined as a particularly moody graphic novel. One of a few recent films — “Persepolis” and “A Scanner Darkly” spring to mind — attempting to reclaim the use of animation for topics beyond kids’ stuff. Director Ari Folman weaves a variety of vets’ memories into a surreal tapestry of wartime horror and peacetime forgetting.

4. “Clean”:

Maggie Cheung won Best Actress at Cannes for her work here as a recovering junkie trying to square things with father-in-law Nick Nolte and regain a connection with her estranged son. A beautifully low-key film, Olivier Assyas’ best, it’s sincere and heartfelt, a far cry from the trendy miserablism of so much contemporary Euro art cinema, from Haneke to Von Trier.

5. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”:

Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall were great as philosophical foils in their roles as two young Americans abroad with very different views of love and sex. Still, you got the sense they were Woody Allen’s id with two different sets of lips. Then enter La Cruz, with a cataclysmic force so elemental and raw that Woody Allen would later comment, “I find it hard to look at Penelope directly.”

6. “Man on Wire”:

CGI special effects are now the cinematic equivalent of Milli Vanilli. “2012″ was just one long yawn of been there, done that. Far more exciting were this doc’s low-tech, black and white stills of French art-prankster Philippe Petit walking a tightrope between New York’s Twin Towers in 1974. Like it or not, reality still does count for something.

7. “The Baader Meinhof Complex”:

A very timely film on the leftist radical/terror group of 1970s Germany. Uli Edel’s film is a little “Bonnie & Clyde,” with its sexy radicals (Johanna Wokalek and Moritz Bleibtreu) robbing banks and shooting “capitalist pigs,” but the film does a good job at probing the underlying issues. Does state repression provoke terrorism? When is a violent response justified?

8. “Slumdog Millionaire”:

Danny Boyle’s crowdpleaser had its flaws — I doubt Dev Patel’s career is going anywhere fast — but all the director’s strengths were on display here too: a killer soundtrack, wired camerawork and some unforgettably iconic moments. Boyle was bashed in India for showing only the poverty and violence, and in the West for only showing the postcard cliches; my guess is he did something right.

9. “Milk”:

Gus Van Sant’s tribute to Harvey Milk — America’s first openly gay politician, assassinated in 1979 — is a pretty conventional biopic, but that may be the director’s point, integrating gay men into the mainstream cinematic vocabulary. The film succeeds thanks to a bravura performance from Sean Penn, who is all cuddly charisma and wry smiles instead of his usual anguish.

10. “Gran Torino”:

Clint Eastwood has one last grapple with the law and order vigilanteism he championed as Dirty Harry, but this time he arrives at a quite different conclusion. Clint’s ornery retired autoworker is very much a “red-state” character coming to terms with a “blue-state” multiculti America, but he still manages to whip out a handgun and snarl: “Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while who you shouldn’t have f**ked with? That’s me.” What I dream of saying to Michael Bay.