Gems and a Loss from ’09

The film-related death that touched me most this year wasn’t the demise of a director or actor. It was the departure of New Yorker Films. The company had existed since the mid-’60s, when it was launched to distribute Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Before the Revolution.” It played a large role in introducing Americans to New German Cinema, becoming particularly identified with Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

But to be frank, New Yorker didn’t make the leap to the video era very gracefully. Its VHS tapes were treated with the copyright-protection system Macrovision, which often distorts the image. The company had a tendency to announce DVD releases long before the actual discs were ready. Its catalogue was enormous, but its library of battered film prints left a lot to be desired.

An iconic distributor departs; the year’s most recent and most noteworthy

Nevertheless, New Yorker Films was a link to the golden age of rep cinema, and its collapse has left world cinema up in the air. Who else would release films by Ousmane Sembene or the team of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet? What’s going to happen to the prints in its collection?

I found Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” both appealing and repulsive. Its amorality is only justifiable in the context of Jews killing Nazis. I can’t imagine even Sylvester Stallone making a film celebrating a character who kills Viet Cong with a baseball bat and carves “Commie” into their foreheads.

But “Basterds” adds something new and noteworthy to American culture –– the kick-ass Jew. In our pop culture, Jewish men are allowed to be smart and funny, but they have few chances to get violent. How many action films have been made with explicitly Jewish characters in the lead?

The film may be an adolescent fantasy, but as blogger Matthew Yglesias points out, it also testifies to the increasing prominence of Jews and the Holocaust in the narrative of World War II. “Inglourious Basterds” does for Jewish-Americans what Tarantino’s beloved blaxploitation films “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown” did for African-Americans.

Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” is brilliantly directed –– I was on the edge of my seat for the whole 130 minutes. It’s also calculated to be an opaque mirror reflecting whatever politics the spectator brings to it. For conservatives, it’s a salute to the bravery of American soldiers; for liberals, it’s an exploration of male pathology. For adrenaline junkies, it’s a roller coaster ride in which their on-screen counterpart suffers no real negative consequences. The film works because it manages to find room for all these viewpoints in a way that comes across as complex, rather than hypocritical or contradictory. No wonder it’s the first Iraq War film to be a commercial success.

This critic’s assessment of the top ten films of 2009 is as follows:

1. “The Limits of Control” (Jim Jarmusch)

Perhaps inspired by the election of Barack Obama, Jarmusch has conjured up a minimalist road movie in which a black Frenchman defeats the forces of conservatism. Jarmusch’s best film since “Dead Man,” it divided critics and didn’t find much of an audience, but I suspect time will be kind to it.

2. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (Wes Anderson)

Working with puppets seems to have freed Anderson; while “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is hardly free of angst and danger, it’s his most joyful film.

3. “The Sun” (Alexander Sokurov)

Hushed, molasses-paced, dimly lit, and beautiful, “The Sun” makes most other films look hopelessly bombastic.

4. “Duplicity” (Tony Gilroy)

The spirit of screwball comedy lives on in “Duplicity,” which generates real sexual tension from the fireworks between Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, a pair of industrial spies who can’t decide if they love or hate each other.

5. “Tokyo Sonata” (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Japan’s ongoing recession has inspired one of Kurosawa’s best films. This is a horror movie where economics –– and the shame provoked by unemployment –– take the place of ghosts and serial killers.

6. “Anvil! The Story of Anvil!!” (Sacha Gervasi)

This documentary about an aging Canadian heavy metal band transcends its similarities to “This Is Spinal Tap” to speak eloquently about the risks of living for one’s art rather than worrying about money.

7. “Import Export” (Ulrich Seidl)

Ulrich Seidl’s previous feature, “Dog Days,” resembled an ugly synthesis of Todd Solondz and Michael Haneke. With “Import Export,” the Austrian director has toned down his misanthropy and found a dose of compassion amidst his unsettling tour of nursing homes and Internet-porn studios.

8. “Police, Adjective” (Corneliu Porumboiu)

In the year of Jarmusch’s comeback, his spirit was also felt in this austere Romanian policier, where words prove more threatening than guns.

9. “Night and Day” (Hong Sang-soo)

The best of the three Hong films to get American distribution, “Night and Day” transplants the director’s usual tales of troubled Korean artists to Paris, finding much the same comedy of embarrassment there.

10. “The Headless Woman” (Lucrecia Martel)

I was fairly dismissive of “The Headless Woman” when I first wrote about it, but it’s grown on me since my initial viewing in September 2008. Deliberately disorienting, Martel’s film creates an open-ended allegory about willful middle-class apathy and amnesia.