The best movie I saw this year won't be winning any awards tonight at the Oscars. It wasn't even nominated for anything. In fact, it wasn't even shown in the United States. Yet, I'm confident that, if you had had a chance to see it, you would likely agree with me that this is a brilliant film, a rare gem.
It's called "Troubled Water" (not to be confused with last year's superb Katrina doc, "Trouble the Water"). "Troubled Water" is from Norway and it is a work of art and great storytelling from the opening frame to its final fade to black. It tells the story of a young man who is paroled after spending time in prison and gets a job as a church organist. He claims to be innocent in the drowning of a child, but the boy's mother won't let it go.
When the film was over, I sat there amazed and wondering, "Why can't I see movies like this all the time?" What is wrong with filmmaking, with Hollywood? Why are most films just the same old tired assembly line stuff -- sequels, remakes, old TV shows turned into movies, predictable plots and storylines... "If you've seen the trailer, you've seen the movie."
But "Troubled Water" was not like that -- and therefore its distribution to the theaters of America was, in essence, doomed.
That's not to say we don't make great movies anymore. I loved "Avatar," "District 9," "Inglourious Basterds," "Up in the Air," and "Up" among many others.
Some critics have hailed "The Hurt Locker" because the film "doesn't take sides" in the Iraq War -- like that's an admirable thing! I wonder if there were critics during the Civil War that hailed plays or books for being "balanced" about slavery, or if there were those who praised films during World War II for "not taking sides?" I keep reading that the reason Iraq War films haven't done well at the box office is because they've been partisan (meaning anti-war).
The truth is "The Hurt Locker" is very political. It says the war is stupid and senseless and insane. It makes us consider why we have an army where people actually volunteer to do this. That's why the right wing has attacked the movie. They're not stupid -- they know what Kathryn Bigelow is up to. No one leaves this movie thinking, "Whoopee! Let's keep these wars going another 7 years!"
James Cameron has been targeted by the crazy right, too. Because -- and Fox and Rush have this one correct, too -- "Avatar" is, in fact, an allegory for America -- a land stolen from an indigenous people who were slaughtered, a nation that not only allows corporations to call the shots but let's them privatize our wars (wars in distant places with the objective of controlling a dwindling energy resource), and a people who seem hell-bent on destroying the environment.
Cameron is a brave and bold filmmaker, a college drop-out who became a truck driver and then one day just decided he was going to make movies. "Avatar" is an idea he's had in his head since he was a teenager -- and somewhere, somehow, his dreams and creativity weren't snuffed out by the machine. Thank God.
There is so much more I want to say about the state of movies these days, but you've got better things to do on this beautiful Sunday. I love this art form, and tonight is the night to celebrate it!
In fact, the Oscars are about to start. I'll try to "tweet" along with you during the show.
Finally, let me leave you with a list of 20 great movies I saw in 2009 that received little or no recognition or distribution in the U.S. They deserve to be acknowledged on this important night, and I hope you can find them somewhere, someday (a number are already on DVD). They represent the hope I have for the movies being the inspiring force I've always believed in.
Be well. And -- no extra salt or butter on the popcorn!
P.S. Here's my list of 20 "best pictures" I saw in 2009:
1. "Troubled Water" (see above)
2. "Everlasting Moments" - A wife in the early 20th century wins a camera and it changes her life (from Sweden).
3. "Captain Abu Raed" - This first feature from Jordan tells the story of an airport janitor who the neighborhood kids believe is a pilot.
4. "Che" - A brilliant, unexpected mega-film about Che Guevara by Steven Soderbergh.
5. "Dead Snow" - The scariest film I've seen in a while about zombie Nazis abandoned after World War II in desolate Norway.
6. "The Great Buck Howard" - A tender look at the life of an illusionist, based on the life of The Amazing Kreskin starring John Malkovich.
7. "In the Loop" - A rare hilarious satire, this one about the collusion between the Brits and the Americans and their illegal war pursuits.
8. "My One and Only" - Who woulda thought that a biopic based on one year in the life of George Hamilton when he was a teenager would turn out to be one of the year's most engaging films.
9. "Whatever Works" - This was a VERY good Woody Allen film starring the great Larry David and it was completely overlooked.
10. "Big Fan" - A funny, dark film about an obsessive fan of the New York Giants with a great performance by the comedian Patton Oswalt.
11. "Eden Is West" - The legendary Costa-Gavras' latest gem, ignored like his last brilliant film 4 years ago, "The Axe".
12. "Entre Nos" - An mother and child are left to fend for themselves in New York City in this powerful drama.
13. "The Girlfriend Experience" - Steven Soderbergh's second genius film of the year, this one set in the the post-Wall Street Crash era, a call girl services the men who brought the country down.
14. "Humpday" - Two straight guys dare each other to enter a gay porn contest -- but will they go through with it?
15. "Lemon Tree" - A Palestinian woman has her lemon trees cut down by the Israeli army, but she decides that's the final straw.
16. "Mary and Max" - An Australian girl and and elderly Jewish man in New York become pen pals in this very moving animated film.
17. "O'Horten" - Another Norwegian winner, this one about the final trip made by a retiring train conductor.
18. "Salt of This Sea" - A Palestinian-American returns to her family's home in the West Bank, only to find herself caught up in the struggles between the two cultures.
19. "Sugar" - A Dominican baseball player gets his one chance to come to America and make it in the big leagues.
20. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" - A smart, adult animated film from Wes Anderson that at least got two nominations from the Academy.
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