Reverse Shot's Two Cents of 2009

2cents.jpg

Most Needless Backlash (tie): Lorna’s Silence / New York Film Festival 2009
Why were folks so hard on the latest from those fabulously talented Dardennes Brothers? In it, they did what they always do, and brilliantly: zero in on troubled characters, present them with frighteningly plausible ethical quandaries, and step back and see if they can wind their way to redemption. Some knocked the brothers for adding a thin veneer of genre, for overly plotting the thing, but hopefully, in retrospect it’ll be clear that Lorna isn’t lesser than their other work at all. The same goes for this year’s highly scrutinized New York Film Festival lineup. Some decided that the fest’s slate of selections was oppresively bleak, and then turned that judgment into an explanation for the undersold screenings and alleged audience dissatisfaction, never mind the logistical hurdles presented by a new venue and new festival management. Complaining about the NYFF is a yearly pasttime, but in the decade or so I’ve been following it closely, I can’t remember a time when the attacks were more misguided, and launched from such high-profile platforms (i.e. The New York Times). The teakettle tempest got so bad that the programmers felt the need to sit down for a lengthy interview with indieWIRE to remind everyone that they, like the Dardennes, just did what they always do: in their case, pick, as a committee, from the best of the films made available to them from around the world. Like or dislike the movies, there wasn’t a single selection that didn’t make sense in the context of the New York Film Festival. —Jeff Reichert

perfectgetaway.jpgThe Jean-Luc Godard Award for Filmmaking as Film Criticism: A Perfect Getaway
No doubt that David Twohy has a deeper agenda in making Steve Zahn’s character in A Pefect Getaway an aspiring Hollywood hack, and also in having him told off by the Nicolas-Cage-loving, possibly PTSD weirdo (Timothy Olyphant) he meets while honeymooning in Hawaii (Milla Jovovich and Kiele Sanchez complete the island double-date). Fortunately, Twohy—last seen fleeing the wreckage of Chronicles of Riddick—doesn’t just diagnose the formulaic malaise afflicting so many commercial entertainments, he writes a potent, revivifying prescription. Beautifully photographed in lush, anamorphic widescreen by Mark Plummer, A Perfect Getaway is completely neato from its sneakily edited pre-credit sequence through the preposterously satisfying cliff-side climax. As for the much-discussed twist that occurs somewhere in between, it’s the rare act of narrative sleight-of-hand that actually deepens a film’s narrative and thematic dynamics instead of just inverting them: find in this tale of identity-hopping thrill-killers a cutting critique of consumerist pathology. —Adam Nayman

bruno.jpgMost Successful Failure: Brüno
As a follow-up to his fuck-you phenomenon Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen aimed to make something so offensive to the sensibilities of its 3,000-plus-theater target audience that they would have to look away from the screen. And they surely did. Brüno became the infamous dud it was always destined to be. Borat bringing literal feces to the dinner table was passable Friday night fare, but Brüno’s erect talking penis was a bridge too far. It really couldn’t have been any other way: if the character had caught on with the American public—resulting in everyone from tweens to hipsters to granddads emulating his svishing hips and effeminate German accent with the same relish they afforded Borat’s exclamations of “Eeez nice!”—then we would have had a failure of a different sort, a massive cultural one. One certainly can’t presume that Baron Cohen intended for his Universal Studios venture to flop, but there’s no doubt that this time he pushed the discomfort to such orgiastic levels that he couldn’t have expected to reap the same bounteous Borat returns. For Brüno’s nastiest little secret—one that unsuspecting moviegoers discovered only after buying their opening-night tickets—was that this was a dirty bomb lobbed right at us. Does gay male sex make you uncomfortable?, it asked, before giddily inundating its audience with all sorts of crazy comic homoerotica, from dildo machines to elaborate bondage devices to sloppy wrestling make-out sessions. Amidst all of its ludicrous balls-out imagery, Brüno also exposed something most damning: the precarious faux doc methods on which Baron Cohen rests his attempted social commentaries, which in this case led him to push and needle unsuspecting folk (from politicians to anonymous good-ol’-boy hunters) to unfunny dead ends. Yet the debate over Baron Cohen’s approach to comedy was over before it began—Brüno exited theaters with a barely reverberative whimper, its rejection the natural climax to this ignominious character’s Hollywood visit. —Michael Koresky

hurtlocker.jpgMost Overrated: The Hurt Locker
What really hurts is the way American reviewers have universally lavished praise on Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, a film that does its damnedest to upsell first-world military know-how as an aesthetic thrill ride, while burying the more complex realities of the Occupation like a well-disguised IED on the roadside, waiting to mangle anyone who dares to touch it. We know how Bigelow likes her men: macho, rock-ribbed, unflappable. That Jeremy Renner sure has a gargantuan pair of cojones, now, doesn’t he? War is a drug we’re invited to abuse, in one riveting, edge-of-the-seat wire-snipping sequence after another, through the eyes of an unreconstructed bomb-defusing addict who masks his fear of death beneath a veneer of gung-ho recklessness and combat-hardened connoisseurship. Bravo! The recruiting offices know a bankable hero when they see one. Admittedly, Bigelow’s film is visceral, visually exciting, and technically accomplished on a number of levels. But that faraway look in Sgt. James’s eyes as he wanders the supermarket aisles back home communicates just one thing: Give me more. Why must we valorize that attitude and everything the film refuses to say about the consequences of American foreign policy? Because there’s a woman in a flak jacket motoring a Humvee across the wasteland of Hollywood’s strident, misguided, openly liberal Iraq war dramas? It took a foreign-born director, Oren Moverman, to create the year’s most compelling and stingingly honest spin on the genre with The Messenger, a homefront picture that’s not at all perfect, but still quietly devastating in its portrayal of grief and post-combat psychological distress. But it hardly registered a sine wave on most of the year-end critics’ polls. All heart, no balls, I guess. Ain’t that America. —Damon Smith

basterds.jpgMost Delicious Pastry: Inglourious Basterds’ strudel
Quentin Tarantino has proven time and again that the devil is in the details. Pulp Fiction’s inopportunely timed toaster pastries are as memorable as its larger plot points and elegant misdirects; and when thinking of poor Vernita Green’s quickfire assassination in the opening chapter of the Kill Bill saga, my mind first goes to that cutaway to her young daughter’s brightly colored red and yellow cereal spoon. Tarantino often draws our attention away from the big picture, if only for a moment, to pick up on the small, seemingly trivial matters that ground his often whimsical or absurd scenarios in concrete texture—something palpable to hold on to while the world spins into chaos. Inglourious Basterds has plenty of such moments (tobacco pipes being stuffed, spangled shoes being unstrapped), but none more evocative, or tempting, than that deliciously flaky strudel the despicable Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) orders for himself and his momentary prey, Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent). It’s “not so terrible,” Landa delectably downplays the dessert once he has studiously waited for the whipped cream topping; but Tarantino’s loving close-ups and sound effects (the fork slicing through layers of crispy baked dough; Waltz’s delighted munching) attest to his understatement. That such a luscious moment of sensory pleasure comes in the middle of a numbingly suspenseful game of maybe cat-and-mouse (does Landa know the theater owner sitting before him is the very same Jewish girl who eluded his grasp years earlier, or is he truly just interrogating her due to his displeasure at her employment of a black projectionist?) is only icing. If only the foodie-baiting Julie and Julia had managed to make any of its various dishes look this tactile and tasty. —MK

meryl_streep.jpgActress Most in Need of a Sabbatical: Meryl Streep
Yes, we know you can do anything, but does that mean you have to do everything? Would it be so hard to step aside for a while and give other mature actresses a look-in? Maybe you could take cooking lessons or learn Greek, or spend some of your money promoting female directors who aren’t named Nora or Nancy. Even if It’s Complicated had been a good movie, all I could see was Alec Baldwin snogging Julia Child—a sight guaranteed to curdle the crème brulée. Perhaps a stint on a TNT or F/X drama would occupy you for a while (Glenn Close and Holly Hunter are loving the cable), I don’t really care; I just don’t want to stop loving you. —Jeannette Catsoulis

Worst Date Movie: He’s Just Not That Into You
Guess what? Men are controlling, game-playing assholes and women are either pathetic doormats who’ll do anything to get in their pants or shrill, untrusting harpies destined to drive them away. Happy Valentine’s Day, America.
Runner-Up: Humpday
A classic gay porn scenario—avowed straight dudes sexually experimenting with each other—only this time there’s no payoff. —MK

taken.jpgMost Amusing Speech: Liam Neeson's “Particular Set of Skills” Phone Rant in Taken
The most fun I had in a theater in February last year was watching Pierre Morel's ludicrous kidnap/revenge actioner Taken, a film so surprisingly popular that Morel seems to have made it again—the From Paris with Love trailer is the funniest thing on TV right now (with stiff competition from ads for Extraordinary Measures and Edge of Darkness). The upcoming film stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers and a violently bald and goateed John Travolta, emptying double-fisted Uzis into the City of Love and Lights for one reason or another. In comparison, Taken seems a quiet affair, but the laughs it provided were loud indeed, most notably in the fan favorite “set of skills” speech, delivered by Neeson’s character via cell phone to his daughter's kidnapper. With self aware, “oh, fuck it” ballsiness, Morel and writer/producer cohort Luc Besson utterly bypassed pesky character background specifics, and simply had you take Neeson's hilarious word for it. These “skills” of which he boasts have been “acquired over a very long career,” and in a stroke of terrible luck for the kidnappers, these same skills make Liam a “nightmare for people like you.” As we see him tap phones, leap onto boats, and storm thug dens, we acknowledge that there's no denying it—hell hath no fury like a skilled father scorned. —Justin Stewart

christmas_1.jpgBest 3-D: The Ghost of Christmas Past in A Christmas Carol
It only took five decades, but in 2009, three-dimensional feature filmmaking finally became reputable. This in the same year that lunged pick-axes (My Bloody Valentine) and teenage meat puppets (The Final Destination) at giddy goggle-wearers. With such intricately, intelligently designed feats of multi-planed animation as Coraline, Up, A Christmas Carol, and Avatar, none of which fell back on cheap gotcha yo-yo tactics, the viewing method no longer seemed a gimmick. Whether this is good or bad for artists who have no interest in creating all-encompassing spectacles remains to be seen (will the thrill of moviegoing be generally reignited, or will viewers demand more wraparound sensory spectales at the expense of smaller films?), but there’s no denying these films’ intermittent beauties. Despite the grand diversions of Avatar and the surreal allure of Coraline, the most astonishing 3-D effect I experienced at the movies this year was the brilliantly reconceived Ghost of Christmas Past in Robert Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol. Despite the film’s tonal incongruity, in which otherworldly histrionics overshadow the essential truths of a quiet, introspective character study (to be fair, this is true of most adaptations of Dickens’s story), Zemeckis and his imagineers, to borrow a Disney phrase, designed the first of the three spirits as a personified floating candle, brilliantly bearing the light of truth of which Dickens wrote. Jim Carrey’s vaporous performance as the ghost, with its charming, and more than a shade disturbing, stutter, is haunting; but it’s the 3-D that seals the deal. When the spirit’s head, an oversized flickering flame, gets close to the screen, the viewer’s peripheral vision fills up with benevolent, burnished illumination. More than any magic trees or screeching pterodactyls, this gorgeous effect crystallized for me what 3-D can bring to the movie experience: if deployed correctly it can immerse the audience not only in the film, but in its emotional and thematic essence. —MK

orpahan.jpgThe Take Some Salt and Apply It Directly to the Open Wound Award: Orphan
“Something is wrong with Esther,” smiled the ads for Orphan, and while there are many things to say about Jaume Collet-Serra’s delirious family horror movie—like the fact that its elegant widescreen compositions evince more directorial smarts than most other American films in 2009—it is, more than anything, a triumph of truth in advertising. It’s satisfying enough when pint-sized psychopath Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) takes a claw hammer to the skull of the nun who unwittingly loosed her on adoptive parents John and Kate Coleman (Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga). But her follow-up—presenting Kate with a bouquet comprised of the white roses she’d planted to commemorate her tragically stillborn daughter—is the last word in emotional terrorism. It’s so wrong that it’s right, and it earns Serra’s film a first-ballot entry into the Bad Taste Hall of Fame. —AN

The Alfred Molina Award for Overacting: Paul Giamatti and Alfred Molina (tie)
Two of Hollywood’s most perspiring character actors, who never met a scene they couldn’t teeth-bare or eye-roll into nullification, expectedly shone in 2009: Paul Giamatti, whose slump-shouldered repertoire normally toggles between lost otter, angry otter, and sad otter, went for the full self-righteous otter in Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station, while Alfred Molina bulldozed through An Education’s tea-cozy early Sixties atmosphere as a wayward teen girl’s blustery pa. As a vehement Tolstoy disciple dead set on ensuring that the dying legendary-in-his-time author leave his body of work’s copyright to the Russian masses, Giamatti is all villainous glowers and mincing machinations, leaving no room for the kind of subtle debate the film should have engendered (then again, Hoffman’s trowel approach to narrative is hardly dissimilar). Meanwhile, Molina (who’s earned this award multiple years now, hence its namesake) plays his domineering suburban Brit as a typical controlling patriarch, that is until he starts to do that Molina thing where his droopy eyes moisten and he looks to the ground with beagle-ish benevolence. Dads are humans too. That said, I’m waiting for Giamatti and Molina to one day play recognizable humans. —MK

watchmen.jpgBest Five Minutes and 41 Seconds in an Otherwise Awful Film: The Opening Montage in Watchmen
What a tease you are, Zack Snyder! With visions of 300’s glistening Grecian galoots dancing (or at least grunting) in my head, I sat down to your adaptation of Alan Moore’s lauded graphic novel expecting the cinematic equivalent of an axe to the face. How surprising, then, to be greeted with Watchmen’s opening credits: a series of stylized, largely silent tableaux that sketch both the film’s back story and its alternate vision of American history with economy, cheek, and touches of pulpy inspiration. To the purposeful yet reflective strains of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin,’” we follow the protagonists’ superhero forbears from their collective Forties-era triumphs to individual descents into suburban misery, madness, and death, all captured via a cadre of photographers and their ever-present flashbulbs. It’s unexpectedly potent stuff, particularly when Snyder interjects his fictional caped-crusaders into moments of classic Americana. (My personal favorite: lesbian crime fighter Silhouette, played by Apollonia Vanova, striding through a Manhattan crowd and laying a steamy smooch on the nurse from Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous “V-J Day in Times Square” photograph, as that picture’s sailor obliviously strolls by in the background.) Such moments—shot by Snyder with an eye for bold, emotionally direct compositions that, for once, are not immediately tossed into the editing blender—can feel glib and a little silly, but they promise an intriguing dystopian vision, unafraid to use national iconography in sly and occasionally disturbing ways. That Watchmen devolves into an ugly, simple-minded, and punishingly long excuse to fetishize the violent acts it claims to question is as predictable as it is depressing. If Watchmen’s opening credits carry an unexpected poignancy upon repeat viewing, it comes from the knowledge of how illusory their artistic promise ends up being. —Matt Connolly

InglouriousBasterds3.jpgBest Breakout: Mélanie Laurent
In the most delightful movie switcheroo of the year, audiences went into Inglourious Basterds expecting a Brad Pitt vehicle about a ragtag World War II troop of vengeful Jews getting some serious payback against the Nazis and instead got a dialogue-heavy, largely subtitled, multicharacter epic fantasy about the pleasures and limitations of cinematic wish-fulfillment. The clearest example of Tarantino upending viewers’ preconceptions was the character of Shoshanna Dreyfus, who gradually rose from voiceless victim (in the film’s first chapter, in which she’s the only survivor of her Jewish family’s extermination by Nazi villain Hans Landa) to movie theater-owner in hiding (in the underappreciated third chapter, a brilliant decentering of the audience’s sympathies and expectations) to, finally, avenging angel. That Shoshanna became Basterds’ surprise protagonist (and another in a series of quick-witted, strong women that Tarantino has offered up in every film following Pulp Fiction) is just one of the film’s countless joys; another was Laurent herself, whose every scene crackles with unshowy star-is-born authenticity. —MK

christian_mckay.jpgBest Should-Have-Been Breakout: Christian McKay
Doing Orson Welles is old hat by now—it’s not quite a cinematic rite of passage on par with a stab at Hamlet, but give it a few generations. Most onscreen takes on Welles are late period—all beards, body fat, and bluster, his bloated dissipation played for laughs; to find Welles at the height of his powers on screen, we would normally need to watch one of his own films. Luckily, Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles looks past the caricature Welles (knowingly) made of himself in his later years in favor of resurrecting the enfant terrible of the theater, the artist at the height of his powers. It’s a step in the right direction, but still a creaky conceit, one that requires a unique talent to pull it off, and the heretofore unknown McKay knocks it out of the park. Zac Efron, as the titular “me,” is the film’s ostensible star, but McKay’s grand, outsized performance effectively sidelines him in every scene. There’s little new here—McKay has the voice, the rapid-fire patter, the hair, the wide eyes, the charisma. What makes it fresh is utter conviction, and full awareness of the insecure monstrosity lurking behind the charm. Me and Orson Welles didn’t get the kind of release it deserved, so McKay’s turn will likely remain undersung. There’s an Academy Award that’ll never be won with his name written all over it. —JR

Worst Character Name: Burt Farlander (Away We Go)
You know a screenplay's trying too hard when the main character's name is overwritten. It's one thing with Dickens and Bond villains, but there's no reason humdrum slices of life like Away We Go need to reach with the monikers. The name “Burt Farlander” handily sums up everything that's twee, fake weary-earnest, and odiously banal about this Dave Eggers/Sam Mendes collaboration. With “Burt,” you know the character's a nonthreatening, oafish cuddler. “Farlander” captures his dreamy wanderlust, perfect for a film centered on travel. All of the worrisome implications of the shitty name are confirmed the second you see John Krasinski's smash-nosed mug, bashfully concealed behind mop-top and thick horn rims. —JS

singleman_0.jpgFashion Don’t: A Single Man
When news arrived that designer Tom Ford would be embarking on a directorial career in film, many assumed, with rather knee-jerk dismissal, that his debut—an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s seminal queer novel about a middle-aged English professor in Southern California mourning the death of his longtime lover—would be little more than a sleek fashion spread. Then positive word came out of Venice and Toronto festivals, both for Ford’s “sensitive” direction and lead Colin Firth’s Oscar buzzy performance. Then it finally saw North American release, and as it turned out, A Single Man was . . . little more than a sleek fashion spread. Every shot is labored over with obsessive idiocy—images of little girls in dresses become slow-mo paeans to cherubic innocence; cigarette smoke curls out of beautiful men’s open mouths with capital-s Sensual delight; and even Mad Men’s Matt Weiner would blush at the uncomplicated fetishism the director “a-Fords” the early sixties clothes and décor. Buried somewhere beneath Ford’s hollow aesthetics and Firth’s bordering-on-campy British scowl is a moving tale of a man’s last day on Earth. But as with most fashion catalogs, there’s too much junk to sift through to get to the good stuff. —MK

Best Soundtrack: Of Time and the City
Terence Davies’s exquisite memory pieces about his Liverpudlian childhood, Distant Voices/Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, were tapestries of sound and image, crammed with enough carefully selected fragments of pop and classical music to fill a dozen films, all while never getting overwhelmed by them. So it’s no surprise that his visual memoir Of Time and the City, a lyrical and lacerating love-hate letter to Liverpool then and now, might be the year’s most aurally striking film. Whether utilizing Brahms, Mahler, Liszt, Narciso Yepes, the Hollies, or, in the film’s most elegant montage sequence (of the proliferation of forgotten low-income high rises in his hometown), Peggy Lee’s melancholy rendition of Jerome Kern’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” Davies creates a musical outpouring of the past in perfect poignant harmony with the image. —MK

Worst Soundtrack: Where the Wild Things Are
“Ooh ahhh smack ANIMALS aargh eeee WIIIILDDD oohh mmmm heeeee yoooowww ANIMALS!!!” A good movie soundtrack should heighten moods, underscore moments rhythmically, offer contrapuntal takes on the images. Karen O and the Kids’ “score” for Where the Wild Things Are, on the other hand, takes a dump all over the screen: it’s a succession of unpleasant grunts, wheezes, and chants that sound as though they were completed in a single take by a bunch of stoners with instruments intermittently breaking from bong hits to half-heartedly bang out a beat. Always intrusive, always nonsensical, this score made an already difficult sit of a movie even harder to bear. It’s been disqualified for Academy Award consideration, officially due to Byzantine technicality (similar to Jonny Greenwood’s omission for There Will Be Blood except that, you know, his score was genius), but perhaps because it just plain stinks.—JR

lohmandrag.jpgBest Scream Queens: Alison Lohman in Drag Me to Hell and Vera Farmiga in Orphan
This won’t come as much of a revelation, but horror movies just don’t get any respect; the actors within them even less so. Two of the finest American lead female performances in 2009 hailed from cinema’s most disreputable genre, but so naturally preoccupied were viewers with the swirl of atrocities surrounding them that they barely noticed how integral these women were to the considerable success of their films. That’s the paradox of the horror movie actor: for all her generous, transparent emoting, her acting becomes invisible. One would be hard-pressed to find better examples of this than Alison Lohman in Sam Raimi’s triumphant return to form, Drag Me to Hell (his best, most visually concise storytelling ever), and Vera Farmiga in Orphan (a really nasty nugget from unheralded contemporary horror maven Jaume Collet-Serra). Lohman’s nuanced portrayal of an ambitious loan officer (and former small-town “Pork Queen”), cursed by a Gypsy whose house she forecloses, is a thing of surprising delicacy—even when she dives whole hog into the merry mayhem of the second half. Rarely has such preposterous plotting felt so naturalistically, relatably enacted; and Lohman’s just-slightly-treacherous take (equal parts warmth and remoteness) nails the script’s cagey way of doling out sympathy to the character. Farmiga, on the other hand, would be guaranteed a Best Actress Oscar nomination if Orphan weren’t such a ghastly parade of sheer wrongness. A roiling mess of guilt and addiction, Farmiga’s Kate Coleman is already an ambitious actor’s dream role before the film proceeds to give her a homicidal adopted daughter, endangered children, and an unsupportive husband who tells her she’s crazy. Before Kate is committed, Farmiga is committed, serving up a bloody emotional banquet. This is the stuff Oscar voters crave—so why go rummaging through the garbage pile to round out the category with stale Sandra Bullock vehicles? —MK

Best Nic Cage: Knowing
Is it heretical at this point to suggests that Nic Cage’s turn in Knowing might have been his best, most sensitive performance of the year? The intelligensia got itself all twisted up in the rush to praise Cage in Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (while ignoring almost completely the filmmaker’s much better My Son My Son What Have Ye Done). Hosannahs were sung—all of a sudden Cage lovers had a bona fide cult movie upon which to build a backwards trajectory explaining nearly a decade’s worth of oddball choices. But where Bad Lieutenant’s gonzo feels a little forced, rendering Cage’s collection of increasingly erratic wind-up tics less effective than they might have been, Knowing’s doomsday scenarios and freaky aliens went all-out batshit from the start. Cage responded by underplaying his hangdog single-father cosmology professor who finds the date the world will end in a buried time capsule. Is Knowing a good movie? Of course not. Is Cage’s a good performance? Not in the traditional sense. But in giving a genre-hopping trainwreck of a movie and its audience something to hang on to, he reminds what movie stars can do.—JR

Separated at birth? Paranormal Activity/Frontier of Dawn
They couldn’t seem more dissimilar, but the brilliant Philippe Garrel’s barely released black-and-white tale of romantic obsession in Paris and first-timer Oren Peli’s $15,000 box-office sensation about demonic possession in a California suburb haunted in similar ways. These two portraits of trust-challenged relationships given the final crack-up by otherworldly forces (however metaphorical in the Garrel) really put their lovers to the test, driving their men to spiritually assisted deaths. Both even culminated with spooky faces appearing out of inky darkness. Surprisingly, it’s Garrel who goes for the rubber demon mask. That may have been silly, but Peli’s final decision for a CGI assist left us all wishing for an analog scare. —MK

Most Convoluted (tie): Broken Embraces and The Burning Plain
It’s always great to hear from Pedro Almodóvar, a filmmaker who’s distinguished himself over a long and justly lauded career. Conversely, we wish Guillermo Arriaga, the patron saint of hipster fragmentation, would go back south of the border and disappear. Why pair the two? Because in 2009 both filmmakers, no strangers to narrative reshuffling, produced works of needless complexity. Embraces is the sadder case as, underneath its stories within stories, multiple identities and flashbacks, there lies an emotive, classically Almodóvarian melodrama anchored by Penelope Cruz’s typically involved turn. The clumsy construction of Arriaga’s The Burning Plain can’t hide the fact that there’s just nothing in the film worth watching, least of all its overbaked twinning of star-crossed lovers, which the writer/director tries to elevate into some grand mystery by chopping into pieces. Burning Plain will, with luck, be the final nail in his empty coffin of a career. Broken Embraces, never less than watchable, is hopefully just a bump in the road.—JR

tetro.jpgBest Return (to Something): Tetro
We somehow managed to write zero words at Reverse Shot on Francis Ford Coppola’s second foray into “low-budget filmmaking” (quotes are necessary as scale comes into play—both Tetro and Youth Without Youth cost in the multiple millions of dollars to produce), which is a shame as Tetro was one of the year’s most fascinating works. Crisply shot in black-and-white digital video, the film starts out humidly, moodily real before seguing into operatic baroque, as a small tale of two reuinited brothers balloons outwards into a grand, dare I say, Coppola-esque tragedy of familial legacy. Youth Without Youth was a muddled, if fascinating, mess. Tetro is about as clear-eyed and successful a film as Coppola has produced in three decades. Let’s hope for more like this. —JR

Worst Twist: The Time Traveler’s Wife
Really? That’s the tragic foretold future of Eric Bana’s doomed-to-time-travel protagonist? That he’ll be mistaken for a deer in the woods and accidentally shot by his gun-toting Republican father-in-law? Was this in the book? —MK

Read Reverse Shot's Two Cents of 2008.