Blue Valentine (dir. Derek Cianfrance, 2009)

A strong if flawed romantic drama, Blue Valentine employs the rare and lovely use of a humanized female character.  The film weaves (sometimes elegantly, sometimes with a heavy hand) between the troubled present and happier but still troubled past of a young couple, Cindy and Dean (Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling).  Thanks to skilled writing and thoughtful conception from director Derek Cianfrance, and to remarkable depths of feeling in Williams’ performance, Cindy is allowed to roam away from the ancillary quirkiness and emotional one-dimensionality that plagues the majority of indie film heroines.  She is a frustrated, sympathetic woman, communicated flawlessly by Williams with her small yet burdened frame and fixed, rundown gaze.  Cindy bares the weight of a person disappointed by life, sidetracked by the unplanned birth of a child she deeply loves and angry with the selfless, unambitious husband she has fallen out of love with.  The role of Dean – while impressively acted – is hampered by a somewhat inevitable fetishizing of Ryan Gosling.  In the way that women and men alike tend to idolize Gosling the star, filmmakers tend to endow Gosling the actor’s roles with too-good-to-be-true qualities that can never be marred, even with character flaws pointedly worked into the narrative.  Dean is ultimately the less interesting of the two lovers, a Manic Hunky Dreamboy of sorts who fails to muster any true ugliness necessary for a deep portrayal.  Blue Valentine suffers from this unevenness, but only moderately.  The film remains an unusually introspective, aesthetically astute work about love at the end of its term.

Daddy Longlegs (dir. Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie, 2009)

With 2008’s The Pleasure of Being Robbed, the Safdie brothers proved themselves to be natural filmmakers with a spare, humbly-financed aesthetic and an understanding of the eclecticism, sorrow and oddball glory that resides within characters worth making films about.  These same qualities are present in Daddy Longlegs, a film following Lenny, a directionless, well-meaning if selfish dad (Ronald Bronstein, appropriately annoying and captivating) and his 2-weeks-out-of-the-year custody relationship with his young sons. Lenny’s characterization is seamless, and cloying narrative devices such as the revelatory monologue or the informative flashback are forgone for a distinctly observational, cross-sectional style of cinema that lets the viewer unearth the man’s demons and small triumphs in an organic way.  Though the final 15 minutes of the film veer into jarringly hyperbolic territory, there is the pleasant inclusion of the Large Artificial Animal that is becoming a Safdie trademark.  This animal, whether fuzzy as in The Pleasure of Being Robbed or surreal and menacing as in Daddy Longlegs, is refreshingly whimsical and captures the essence of the films’ conspicuously disconnected individuals.

Double Take (dir. Johan Grimonprez, 2009)

Such disparate entities as Alfred Hitchcock, Folger’s coffee, and the Kitchen Debate find an odd and intelligent commonality in Double Take, a fluidly artistic mash-up of retro, paranoid parallels and Doppelgänger worship.  By reassembling random footage of the pot-bellied Hitchcock, Johan Grimonprez has fashioned an uneasy narrative about the masterful director meeting his double in an isolated production office.  This sparse plot is interwoven with vintage Folger’s coffee ad spots and Cold War news excerpts to create a thesis that centers on the repetition of history and our societal need for that great Hitchcockian plot gimmick, the MacGuffin.  As Grimonprez seems to be arguing, television’s visual saturation worked as a particularly potent MacGuffin at a time when nations were bending over backwards to blow each other to oblivion.  And, true to the title, doubling is cleverly rampant throughout the film: a Hitchcock impersonator is interviewed at length, Nixon and Khrushchev chronically appear side-by-side in frame, and decades-old archival footage– including a suicidal body tumbling through the air– has distinct 9/11 resonance.

Enter the Void (dir. Gaspar Noé , 2009)

Excruciatingly tedious and seemingly interminable at nearly three hours, Gaspar Noé’s filmic attempts to capture the afterlife will make a viewer truly understand the upside of getting to leave one’s own body.  This is a mild exaggeration, but perhaps necessary as a means of expressing the frustration felt when a director with uncompromising vision and undeniable visual talent creates something so headache-inducing.  Noé’s mobile POV camera is staggeringly impressive.  So why then must the film’s concept (which takes horridly heavy-handed stabs at the Oedipal complex, incest, and all things postmortem) and the script (which is bad) and the running time (which is beyond unnecessary) be in such an abysmal state?

Frozen (dir. Adam Green, 2009)

Being stuck overnight on a ski resort’s chairlift is an intelligently simple, scary premise for a film, due in no small part to how plausible it seems.  It is also a premise that lends itself cunningly well to the Midnight programming lineup at such a wintry, privilege-ridden festival as Sundance.  So the inclusion of Frozen, banal and generically-incompetent as it is, makes a certain amount of sense.  There is an all-too-brief 15 minute period when said chairlift has come to a halt, freezing to death is contemplated, and a character has jumped to his leg-splintering fate into a pack of wolves that the film seems to find its terrifying stride.  But this terror gives way to a series of mind-numbing monologues delivered by “actors” who seem vaguely confused (and rightly so) that a campy horror film should require emotional depth.  Which it shouldn’t, though it should at least attempt a variety of creative deaths as opposed to a reliance on the appetite of wolves.

Nuummioq (dir. Otto Rosing & Torben Bech, 2009)

Apparently Greenlandic filmmakers (of which there are surprisingly few – Nuummioq is the first feature film to come from the country) are susceptible to the same indie trappings as filmmakers from more populated climes.  If a scruffy white guy with two “comedic” buddies (one fat, one non-white), or an oddly implausible diagnosis of terminal cancer, or a nature-bound voyage of self-discovery (mostly dudes, most of the time), or a girlfriend who is allowed a smattering of scenes and less than a smattering of humanizing qualities sounds like frustratingly familiar territory, that’s because it is.  Non-familiar territory?  The hypnotically isolated, crystalline beauty of Greenland’s land and seascape.  A petite white iceberg can add ineffable spiritual flourish to a film when the directing, acting and writing do not.

A Prophet (dir. Jacques Audiard, 2009)

Jacques Audiard’s epic and fitfully brilliant portrayal of a young criminal’s ascent to the apex of a prison-bound crime pyramid is both lavishly stylistic and intelligent in its ability to grapple with the nuances of racial identity.  Malik (played by the effortlessly magnetic Tahar Rahim), a passably Gallic French-Arab 19-year-old sentenced to 6 years of hard time, is quickly introduced to the reality of thug survival when he is adopted/kidnapped by the incarcerated members of a Sicilian gang and blackmailed into carrying out the gang’s dirty work.  A Prophet moves with fluid, hypnotizing strokes from excessive, pulse-pounding grittiness (think “razor blade in mouth”) to a sort of hallucinatory, tormented spirituality that leaves even the most bleak jail cell with a hint of dazzling magical-realism.  The ghost of a murdered prisonmate, who joins Malik in bed and whose skin ignites like a shrine, and the slow-motion, fragmented premonition of a pack of deer, prove Audiard’s ability to communicate that which is ecstatically, terrifyingly beautiful.  The film’s length is slightly self-indulgent, but the confidence and command behind the filmmaking compensate for the moments of rambling.