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January 2009

B.I.G. in Life, Bigger in Death

Notorious (2009)

Phil Caruso/Fox Searchlight Pictures

It is fair to question whether the life of Christopher Wallace, also known as Biggie Smalls or the Notorious B.I.G., would even be worthy of a motion picture were it not for the East Coast-West Coast blood feud that ended in his death. That’s a blasphemous sentiment to many, and it is certainly not meant to detract from the fact that he achieved success from nowhere or that he was a terrific rapper. It is, rather, an observation inspired by George Tillman Jr.’s intermittently entertaining but thoroughly conventional Biggie biopic, “Notorious.”

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Was It Overdose or Was It the Pistol?

Who Killed Nancy (2009)

Sid and nancy color
Peace Arch Entertainment

The death of Nancy Spungen – the drug addict, part-time prostitute girlfriend of Sex Pistol’s bassist Sid Vicious – will always be a much debated footnote in the history of punk. The assumption (and indeed the conclusion of a much-maligned investigation by the N.Y.P.D.) was that she was murdered by a heroin-addled Sid, who predictably had no recollection of how Spungen ended up stabbed to death in their dilapidated hotel room bathroom. Sid’s untimely death a mere four months later meant a trial never happened and the police closed the case believing Spungen’s murderer to have met his own sort of justice. Predictably, speculation over what really happened in room 100 of the Hotel Chelsea on the night of Oct. 11, 1978 has been rife ever since: Did Sid really murder his girlfriend – was he even physically capable of such an act – or was it the result of a bungled robbery? It is this uncertainty that Sid Vicious biographer Alan G. Parker attempts to unravel with this frustrating examination of the events leading up to Spungen’s murder.

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Packing, Something Besides a Punch

Donkey Punch (2008)

Magnet Releasing

“Donkey Punch” is a nasty little thriller that might have worked had it tempered its propensity for outrageous brutality. Gruesome violence certainly has its places in the movies, but only in a very particular context. Here, the bursts of it come completely out of nowhere, and are rendered in such an over-the-top fashion that one would be forgiven for confusing Olly Blackburn’s suspense tale with Peter Jackson’s “Dead Alive.” It’s an odd, atonal combination that torpedoes the pointless picture.

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Swimming in Swan Lake

Ballerina (2006)

First Run Features

“Ballerina” serviceably documents the challenges of life as a member of the ballet company of St. Petersburg’s Mariinski Theatre, perhaps the world’s foremost such institution. Director Bertrand Normand includes a sufficient volume of rehearsal scenes, talking heads testifying to the difficulties of life at the top of the field and clips from performances of many of the greatest works of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev and others. In other words, he does everything he should to fulfill his film’s central mission: giving outsiders a rare glimpse into an exclusive, elite world.

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Capturing the Dissonance of a Fractured Family

Regent Releasing

About 10 years ago, I was home for the summer after my freshman year in college. This was going to be the summer of catching up on all of the movies I had missed during the hectic year. I was perusing the foreign film section searching for my usual cinematic fare, which at the time was contemporary French and Chinese films. Suddenly, I come across an enigmatic cover with half of a man’s face in shadow. It said “ 'Cure,' a film by Kiyoshi Kurosawa,” and the tagline read, “Madness. Terror. Murder.” Intrigued, I read the back of the DVD case. Although I had never seen a Japanese film before and was not very interested in exploring its cinema, but a reviewer blurb compared “Cure” to recent American hit “Seven.” So I rented “Cure.” It was then and continues to be today one of the best films I have ever seen. I immediately watched as many of Mr. Kurosawa’s movies as I could find. Soon my love of his work compelled me to discover the rest of Japanese cinema, which has become my passion and area of study.

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Smelling the Forgotten Roses

Gardens in Autumn (2006)

Artificial Eye

A rather beautiful leopard appears in the film "Gardens in Autumn," languishing in the white and gold opulence of the home of government minister Vincent (Séverin Blanchet). There are animals everywhere, in fact, but this particular beast - Otar Iosseliani, the film’s writer and director, has claimed - symbolizes power, in much the same way as the ancient kings would keep menageries of the rare and wild within their palace walls.

In some ways the leopard also reflects the nature of the film itself as it remains rather tame throughout, casting a sly eye over proceedings rather than surrendering to more savage instincts and letting rip with tooth and claw. Likewise, "Gardens in Autumn" is a droll, gentle film which pokes a satirical tongue out at the world of work and politics without being sharp enough to suggest anything that is not already universally familiar.

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Before You Forget

Stephen Berkman/Roadside Attractions

The annual ritual of best-of lists can seem arbitrary, obsessive-compulsive or even narcissistic. When any aspiring critic can set up a blog or a Flixter account to get his or her two cents in, do readers even care if a critic has credentials or expertise? Do people even read movie reviews anymore, when they’ve become reliant on listicles or quotables that appear in ad copies and on Rottentomatoes? As publications around the country rush to meet the bottom line to appease shareholders, some of the most brilliant and erudite voices have become orphaned in the process. Those who are serious about a career in film criticism have probably all paused to ask whether this is still honest work or just a frivolous pursuit.

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Where Is Father Marin When You Need Him?

The Unborn (2009)

Peter Iovino/Rogue Pictures

Give David S. Goyer some credit: At least the writer-director of “The Unborn” shows some awareness of horror’s cultural legacy beyond “Saw” and “Hostel.” He’s made a film about a dybbuk, which is (as described by Wikipedia) “a malicious possessing spirit, believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person,” that serves as a primary figure in Eastern European Jewish folklore.

Unfortunately, the movie emergent from that initial conceit owes less to the tradition it evokes then the bland, sanitized aesthetic so familiar to PG-13 Hollywood horror. It’s full of cheap thrills that mostly consist of people popping up out of nowhere and dialogue comprised largely of theological gobbledygook. Sadly, none of it even qualifies as so bad it’s hilarious, save for the image of Gary Oldman as a rabbi, loudly incanting an exorcism in Hebrew.

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The Kiss of Death

The Spirit (2008)

Lionsgate/Odd Lot Entertainment

In "The Spirit," director Frank Miller takes Will Eisner's 1940s comic strip and drop-kicks it into a Wurlitzer jukebox of noise, melodrama and illogic. He also gives a clear indication of just how much the big-screen version of "Frank Miller's Sin City" came from Robert Rodriguez, since claims that the two films look the same are a long way off the mark. The green-screen method may be similar, but "The Spirit" lacks almost all of "Sin City's" detailed atmospheric backgrounds and visual tics. Instead, Mr. Miller opts for something much more archetypal, laying on his splashes of color with the broadest brush he could lay his hands on. It also lacks "Sin City's" whiff of insanity, a much more damaging loss. "The Spirit" is many things, but it is not out of control; and its biggest flaw is the air of cold calculation that hangs over it. Mr. Miller is being accused of having lost his marbles, but any sign that the director was having an actual brainstorm would have livened things up no end.

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River Deep, Mountain High, Life Goes On and So Does Death

Ishika Mohan/Fox Searchlight Pictures

The introductions to these lists – meant to summarize a year at the movies – tend to adopt one of two perspectives: They either bemoan the disappointments of the past 12 months of cinematic fare or they celebrate the proof that, against all odds, great movies still exist. Both seem like obvious ways out, so by way of a preface I’ll simply say that these were my 10 favorite films of the year, and I hope I’ve made a good case for why each meant something special to me.

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