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BEST FILMS OF 2009

Let us celebrate the miracle of wondrously difficult movies

by Kaori Shoji

The more movies you watch the more you become convinced how they are wondrously difficult things to make. Billy Wilder didn’t say that exactly, but he did say something about the job getting harder as he got older, so I figured it out. I’m always awed by the fact that so many incredibly watchable films come out at all, not to mention the insight and dedication of Japanese distributors to bring over lesser known film jewels from the Middle East and Central Asia, some of which are included in my list, which is in no particular order.

“Le silence de Lorna”:

Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne specialize in portrayals of “Bleak With Hope” — and their latest charts the movements and emotions of Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), a fresh-faced Albanian immigrant knee-deep in a fake marriage scam. She’s wed to heroin junkie Claudy (Jeremie Renier) solely to secure a Belgian passport. But she’s not as tough as she thought and is devastated when Claudy ODs, leaving her in a no-man’s swamp of guilt and regret.

“The Syrian Bride”:

Israeli films are making their mark on the international cinemascape and if you’ve never plunged into one before, this is a wonderful film to wet your feet. Sisters Amal (Hiam Abbass) and Mona (Clara Khoury) live in a tradition-dominated village in The Golan Heights; on this day Mona is getting married to a Syrian man she’s never met and leaving her home forever. This arranged marriage is Mona’s only ticket out of her claustrophobic existence, but by the end of the day we see that Amal, in her own way, also refuses to be a slave to heritage and history.

“Frost / Nixon”:

Remember when talk show hosts had those hair-dos sprayed tightly in place with ozone-depleting aerosols? British TV host David Frost (Michael Sheen) has that lacquered look, and is obnoxiousness personified — until he goes after the “interview of the century” with Watergate-disgraced Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). The event grabbed higher ratings and more viewers than Frost had ever hoped for, but whether he managed to peel back Nixon’s ironclad layer of poised hypocrisy is a question to ponder and savor.

“Rachel Getting Married”:

Before director Jonathan Demme became Mr. Precision Control, he sported a craftsy spontaneousness. (See “Something Wild”), and this is a return to those roots. An atypically gritty Anne Hathaway plays Kym, on leave from rehab to attend sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding — a homey, thematic, inexplicably Indian affair that happens in their family home. Old wounds and resentments pop out like warty goblins over the weekend as both sisters navigate among the murky mysteries of familial ties.

“Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame”:

Nineteen-year-old Hana Makhmalbaf has come out with a fiery gem of a film that all but pierces the retina. Six-year-old Afghan girl Baktay (Nikbakht Noruz) just wants to go to school and sets off across the rocky terrain that had long been Taliban territory. The first obstacle is procuring a cheap notebook and pencil, but then she must contend with a gang of 12-year-old Taliban wannabees who take her prisoner and throw her into a cave.

“Revolutionary Road”:

Filmmaker Sam Mendes seems to have a thing about the American suburb (see “American Beauty”) and his keen, biting observations come to the fore in elegant, 1950s style. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) are the perfect, post World War II couple for whom an artistic sensitivity plus prosperity in the form of a big white suburban house, a huge car and two kids — seemed like a promised package of entitled happiness. But April becomes bored and hatches a plan for them to live in Paris, a move that seals her tragic fate.

“A Thousand Years of Good Prayers”:

Wayne Wang returns to form in this quiet, gentle story of a father-daugher reunion. Beijing scientist Mr. Shi (Henry O) arrives in The United States to help his estranged daughter, Yilan (Faye Yu), get over her divorce. Yilan is polite, but she doesn’t want her father’s meddling, or the elaborate meals he rustles up every evening in her underused kitchen. By the end of the movie his warmth slightly thaws her reserve, but a complete reconciliation will need more time. After all, according to an old Chinese proverb, it takes a thousand years of ancestral prayers to ensure a good relationship between parent and child.

“Synecdoche, New York”:

Are you ready for two hours of Charlie Kaufman’s (who wrote such brilliant quirks such as “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) company? The weak-hearted and thin-blooded should stay away from this incredibly dense, thought-packed maze of a movie that demands near-Olympian skills in intellectual acrobatics. Kaufman’s alter ego, Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is a playwright with an idea — to build a scaled down Manhattan inside a Manhattan warehouse, and have his cast act out their lives on its streets.

“Julie and Julia”:

In 2002, New York office worker/blogger Julie Powell got the idea to make all 534 recipes in Julia Child’s legendary book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and write up her experiences (some hilarious, some heartrending, all delicious) on the Net. The result was much beloved notoriety — and then this movie, with masterful performances from Meryl Streep as Julia Child in postwar Paris, and Amy Adams as Julie Powell in present-day New York. An illuminating and extremely satisfying picture that also reveals the deep, forceful power of butter.

“Transporter 3″:

What would 2009 have been without this relentlessly mindless wreck of a film that oozes ludicrousness from every pore? See it for the Transporter’s (Jason Statham) supermale physique, no doubt designed by Zeus. See it for the cars and their gratuitous smashing. And let’s not forget the leggy, bosomy Russian babe (Natalya Rudakova) with just one thing on her mind, draped around her Transporter who’s shooting and veering this way and that. The plot? What’s that?