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Correcting the PH level: The Balm of 2009

Because I don’t want to close the naughty aughts on the sour, bitter, acid note of my last entry, but on one that’s fruitier and more effervescent, with hints of juniper and spice, here are a couple of lusty lists: the best performances of 2009 and some cool movies of the past decade.

Best Performance of the Year: Colin Firth, A Single Man. Really, there’s no contest. The movie is so much set design — not bad but too art-conscious to have an impact commensurate with Firth’s performance. But that performance is explosively guarded — a rare case in which an actor has the courage to explore his own limitations, and in doing so, to transcend them.

Let’s also celebrate the other Best Actors:

• Charles Berling in Summer Hours: a study in sudden yet eloquent disorientation.
• Tobey McGuire and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brothers: trading places, each of them seesawing between strength and disintegration.
• Ben Foster in The Messenger: a soldier rubbed raw by the horror of war.
• Jeff Bridges staggering through Crazy Heart: erect only when leaning back from his guitar.
• Jesse Eisenberg in Adventureland: the soul of un-self-sufficient virginal blurtiness.
• Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man: a grounded Jew out to sea.
• The incomparably prickly Max Records in Where the Wild Things Are.

Actresses:

• Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia (only!): an impersonation that captures the music of Julia Child and along with it the soul.
• Yolanda Moreau as a cleaning lady/painter in Seraphine: plain, ruddy, toddling in rapture, an imperfect translation of the inner life that finds its perfect expression in painting.
• Natalie Portman in Brothers: almost unbearably pretty, her poise stretched to the breaking point.
• Sandra Bullock in The Proposal: a nifty piece of farce hysteria, and she’s beautifully partnered by Ryan Reynolds.

Supporting Actor:

• Jemaine Clement in Gentleman Broncos: a gut-busting mixture of insecurity and self-infatuation. (Damn Fox Searchlight for dumping this movie!)
• Sam Shepard in Brothers: subtext raised to the level of myth.
• Paul Schneider in Bright Star: male buddydom with a vein of poison.
• Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds: one of cinema’s most bloodcurdling insinuating sadists.
• Robert Duvall as an elderly survivor in The Road: slyness and willed dementia.
• James Gandolfini in Where the Wild Things Are: the big beast as big baby.
•Fred Melemed as Sy Abelman in A Serious Man: burly, obsequious, his righteousness an infuriatingly rabbinic pose.

Supporting Actress:

• Jane Lynch’s whooping giantess in Julie & Julia.
• Anna Faris in Observe and Report: mining the sublime in the dissolute.
• Maggie Gyllenhaal in Crazy Heart: through childish belief, making an impossible character believable.
• Juliet Binoche in Summer Hours: never quite present, like her character.
• Samantha Morton in The Messenger: radiantly, beatifically confused.
• Diane Kruger as a famous German actress in Inglourious Basterds, prompting the question, “Who is this scorching babe? Oh yeah, she was the Helen of Troy who could barely have launched a hundred ships — but context is all.
• Catherine O’Hara in Where the Wild Things Are: the giant beast as biker mama.

I gave Film Comment my choices for the most interesting films of the decade, but like all such lists, it’s incomplete:

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2. Mulholland Drive
3. The Pianist
4. Bus 174
5. Gosford Park
6. Munich
7. Time Out
8. Spellbound
9. Spirited Away
10. Yi Yi

... many of them taking the old illusion-versus-reality theme to vertiginous new heights.

I left out There Will Be Blood, of course, and Finding Nemo and Brad Bird’s films, and Junebug, Best in Show, and so many more. This decade thing is arbitrary, but anything that compels you to search out films you might have missed can’t be bad.

I wish for you a New Year with more to be proud of than ashamed.

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