Hot tickets

by David Larsen / 26 December, 2009
Helene Wong and David Larsen pick their Top 10s from 2009.

DEPARTURES, directed by Yojiro Takita. Making the protagonist a cellist is one of many brilliant strokes in Takita's wonderful meditation on death. When the cellist takes a job as an undertaker's assistant, the sound of his instrument and the visual poetry of the funeral -rituals he learns to perform conjure a film both mesmerising and contemplative. A compassionate and gently humorous insight into family, grieving and reconciliation.

DISTRICT 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp. There's freshness, intelligence and energy to Blomkamp's pointedly contemporary sci-fi thriller that more than explains Peter Jackson's championing of it. Who knew we would end up rooting for prawns - aka aliens - and white-knuckling our way through the entire thing? Some have noted the documentary/drama confusion, but let's not be picky. It's one breathless, ferocious ride.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Stieg Larsson's novel was a ?page-turner, and this is its cinematic equivalent. Proof? When the film broke down near the end of a preview screening, no one moved. We just knew there was going to be another rabbit produced out of the hat. There were two. A murder-mystery that's a cut well above the rest, thanks to a smart adaptation, sustained tension, Scandinavian ambience and, above all, a unique, compelling heroine.

IN THE LOOP, directed by Armando Iannucci. Not only the best, most transgressive political satire of the year, but also a triumphant leap from series TV (the BBC's The Thick of It) to cinema. Furthermore, its seamless integration of American characters and plotlines must make it one of the most successful transatlantic comedy collaborations onscreen. Peter Capaldi rocks as the Gordon Ramsay of Westminster, and Steve Coogan and James Gandolfini are just two names in a uniformly brilliant cast.

I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG, directed by Philippe Claudel. The writing alone elevates this story of a family secret into something special to savour. We're kept in double narrative thrall by the use of oblique clues revealing a character's past, while at the same time observing the healing of that past. The icing on top is Kristin Scott Thomas' pitch-perfect performance, and Claudel's direction, underscoring the emotional territory with imagery rich with meaning.

LAND OF THE LONG WHITE CLOUD, directed by Florian Habicht. Premiered at the New Zealand International Film Festival and on general release next month. This winningly idiosyncratic sliver of Far North life confirms Habicht (Kaikohe Demolition) as a film-maker who can observe his "ordinary Kiwi" subjects shrewdly, while simultaneously engaging with them so well he draws out of them something quite extraordinary. Shot at the Snapper Classic on Ninety Mile Beach, it has the look and soundscape of pure New Zealand.

MARY AND MAX, directed by Adam Elliot. So much choice in animation this year, but the poignancy and truth in this intimate little story got to me. Australia's Elliot, a master of lovingly detailed - and Oscar-winning - claymation, crafts an unexpected pen-friend relationship between an eight-year-old in Australia and a 44-year-old in New York. Misfits both, they squabble and support - hey, just like real friends. Sounds like 84 -Charing Cross Road? No - funnier, sadder and darker.

MORRIS: A LIFE WITH BELLS ON, directed by Lucy Akhurst. Morris dancing isn't only about the hankies and the staves, you know. There's history, tradition and standards; not to mention a high level of fitness. A stunningly good cast led by Chaz Oldham and graced with the presence of Sir Derek Jacobi turns this straight-faced mockumentary into something much bigger: a rumination on the process and inevitability of change. Did someone say Olympic event?

SAMSON AND DELILAH, directed by Warwick Thornton. A triumph of cinema art applied to powerful social content. Aboriginal film-maker Thornton steeps us in the lives and dim prospects of two teens in an outback community, eschewing dialogue in favour of sound, framing and editing to draw us deeply into their routines and rhythms, creating layers of poignant and disturbing meaning out of every object, action and look. Outstanding performances throughout.

THE TOPP TWINS: UNTOUCHABLE GIRLS, directed by Leanne Pooley. A film about the Topp Twins was always going to get an audience, but Pooley's deft and artful blending of music, performance and interviews with a trove of archival material transcends documentation to become a cinematic distillation of us - our agrarian roots, humour, tolerance, feistiness and fortitude - while capturing what makes Lynda and Jools unique and much loved.

AT THE DEATH HOUSE DOOR, directed by Peter Gilbert and Steve James. The makers of Hoop Dreams have done it again: found someone whose life pulls a difficult social issue into focus; spent years building trust; and made a piercingly brilliant documentary. This time their subject is a Texas prison chaplain whose hang-'em-high views were tested when he found himself working on death row. Pure gold.

BIG RIVER MAN, directed by John Maringouin. Extreme sports as psychodrama: in this riveting and profoundly strange documentary, we follow distance swimmer Martin Strel down the entire length of the Amazon river, a journey he turns into a metaphor by going progressively more and more insane. The full-blown operatic soundtrack is entirely appropriate.

DEAN SPANLEY, directed by Toa Fraser. How do you make a satisfying three-course meal out of sugar and air? Fraser's second film should be too whimsical to pack such an emotional wallop, but this gleefully preposterous reincarnation fantasy - built around a career-crowning performance from Peter O'Toole and an equally strong one from Sam Neill - had me in tears by the end.

DISTRICT 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp. Blomkamp's directorial debut was lightning from a clear sky. ?I've argued myself hoarse over aspects of it, because this staggeringly assured aliens-among-us sci-fi thriller is not without its imperfections. But that didn't stop me seeing it three times. An involving story anchored in a magnificent, largely improvised performance from first-time actor Sharlto Copley, backed up by spectacular special effects: an instant genre classic, and the best film I saw in 2009.

LOOKING FOR ERIC, directed by Ken Loach. A sweet-hearted redemption comedy with its feet firmly on the social realist ground, despite football star Eric Cantona's role as a depressed British postie's imaginary friend. Loach and his long-time writer Paul Laverty pull us into their story with such sure hands we hardly even notice we're seeing masters at work.


PONYO, directed by Hayao Miyazaki. The great animator Miyazaki returns to form with this gorgeous children's cartoon, a richly imagined retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid as a fable of humanity's struggle for ecological balance in a badly polluted world. Accessible and unthreatening enough for the very smalls, wonderful fun for slightly older kids, and a pure delight for adults.


SAMSON AND DELILAH, directed by Warwick Thornton. Viewers made nervous by descriptions of Thornton's dynamite first feature as "Australia's Once Were Warriors" may find themselves relaxing 20 minutes or so in, as brutality, rape and suicide fail to hove into view. Don't get too comfortable. Thornton depicts the stultifyingly restricted lives of two small-town Aboriginal teens calmly enough - for the most part - but this beautiful, intelligent work of art has the cumulative effect of a punch to the stomach.


STAR TREK, directed by JJ Abrams. The Hollywood blockbuster done just exactly right, and the first Star Trek movie deft enough to appeal equally to fans of the series and people who've never watched a single episode. Inspired casting, pitch-perfect writing and a director who knows how to generate a sense of breathless pace without forgetting to have fun: bring on the sequel.


SUNSHINE CLEANING, directed by Christine Jeffs. An understated, perfectly judged gem with a dream cast, led by Emily Blunt and Amy Adams as down-on-their-luck sisters who start a crime scene clean-up business - which leads them to address deeper-seated problems than their lack of funds. Funny, sad and full of charged little moments that add up to much more than the sum of their parts.

THE TOPP TWINS: UNTOUCHABLE GIRLS, directed by Leanne Pooley. As we filed out of Pooley's joyful, expertly made documentary about the life and times of the yodelling women of a thousand faces, I remarked to a friend, "There's no way that plays well overseas, it's just too Kiwi." "Who cares?" she replied. "The Twins are ours." Good answer, but I was wrong: Pooley and the Topps have had great international reviews. New Zealand - and New Zealand film - couldn't ask for better ambassadors.


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