To be a film critic at the end of August is to be a high diver poised at the end of the board. Behind you is the overheated cacophony of the hectic summer months, ahead is the cool comfort of theaters filled with the fall's smart and sophisticated offerings. Or so it's tempting to think.
But what if the fall films, for all their promise, let us down? (It's happened before.) And what if movies from those earlier months turn out to be some of the best we'll see all year? It's in that spirit that some of the best of 2009 so far have been selected for your consideration.
First on my list is Kathryn Bigelow's overwhelmingly tense "The Hurt Locker," a film that so completely achieves its complex goals that it's difficult to accurately describe. Adult audiences have become so accustomed to being burned by movies that don't live up to the hype that it's worth your life to convince anyone that a film like "The Hurt Locker," a film that fully delivers what it promises, actually exists.
Though it's set in contemporary Baghdad, this story of the exploits of a trio of "EOD techs," or explosive ordnance disposal technicians, is no more a film about the Iraq war than Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage" is a book about the U.S. Civil War. It's instead a classic study of men in combat and under stress that could have taken place any time, anywhere.
Director Bigelow compellingly re-creates the chaotic ferocity of bomb removal in an alien, unfathomable atmosphere, placing us in such a rapid-fire sequence of life-threatening events that we never, ever have a chance to catch our breath. Mark Boal's taut script is brought to vivid life by stars Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty. "Hurt Locker" doesn't let being the action film of the year get in the way of insight into character and psychological acuity.
Nothing could be further from all this high tension and violence than "Ponyo," the latest world of wonder from Hayao Miyazaki, the great genius of contemporary animation who has yet to make the kind of impact he deserves in the mainstream American market.
The arrival of the hand-drawn "Ponyo" is just the latest proof that we are without doubt living in one of animation's golden ages. Equally worthy of having a spot on this best list is Pete Docter's Pixar-driven "Up," the magical and moving story of a cranky 78-year-old floating off to parts unknown, and even the marvelous 3-D stop motion "Coraline." And still to come in the fall is another stop-motion effort, Wes Anderson's highly anticipated "Fantastic Mr. Fox," based on the book by Roald Dahl.
The story of a goldfish that wants to be a little girl, "Ponyo" is a sweet-natured film that emphasizes the joys of childhood friendship. It has a lot in common with "My Neighbor Totoro," the director's gentle classic, but it still manages to create excitement when it needs to.
Underlying the story, as is the case in all of the director's work, is Miyazaki's exceptional filmmaking imagination, his ability to stretch our minds and bring us into other worlds. Miyazaki also has an intuitive understanding of magic, seeing it as something that haunts the edges of the everyday, mixing with the ordinary in ways we don't always take the time to notice. Miyazaki uses the logic of dreams to make deep connections to our emotions, and no one -- adult or child -- can resist that.
If "The Hurt Locker" and "Ponyo" were easy, even obvious choices, the third one is not. Among the movies considered were a pair of fine foreign-language films, Sweden's "Everlasting Moments" and "Moscow, Belgium" from (where else but) Belgium. Or possibly two documentaries from the year's bumper crop, maybe the buoyant rock opera "Anvil! The Story of Anvil" and the delightful sports saga "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29."
What I ended up with instead was a two-film combination that made a pair of points when joined together. That would be the German film "A Woman in Berlin" and the Danish "Flame & Citron."
These are compelling foreign-language pictures that are created specifically for adults. Yes, they don't last long in theaters, they present a degree of difficulty and they take a certain amount of effort to ferret out, but an audience that can't deal with that and insists on being spoon-fed its films had better get used to a diet of movies for 11-year-old boys.
More than that, the films share the common ground of taking a risky and unusual look at one of the most overdone subjects of our time, World War II. If the arc of "Inglourious Basterds" was no surprise to Quentin Tarantino watchers, these films -- the first an intense examination of life as sexual chattel in postwar Germany, the second an immersion into the compromised moral universe of resistance fighters -- nervily stake out territory that is sui generis. Taken together, they show the remarkable resilience of sophisticated filmmaking, a gift for survival the medium has never needed more than it does today.