In 2009, as the rest of the world turned to the U.S. for political leadership (or at least something like hope), for first time, American domestic movie revenues topped $10 billion. This despite the poor economy and the much-ballyhooed home entertainments sales. As usual, increased profits doesn’t mean the product is improved; instead, it suggests that targeted advertising is now honed to a science, as is the marketing of tie-in materials (games, music, food, gear) and the need for families and young male consumers (the most often targeted group) to spend time in front of large screens with Raisinettes in hand.
As usual, much of the product people paid to see was loud and violent. Some filmmakers were doing something else. Some of them were women, and some of their films found distribution. The following list does not take a particular order.
The best known and most widely available of the films on this list is Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, which is loud and suspenseful and violent, as well as winner of several critics’ association awards. Part stunning action movie, part political critique, the film features affecting performances by Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie as two U.S. soldiers who disarm explosive devices in Iraq. The film looks not only at the hurt they endure, collect, and inflict, but also how they come to be men in pain, by definition.
Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s How to Fold a Flag revisits four of the soldiers featured in their 2004 documentary, Gunner Palace, with an eye to how they are coping with war’s aftermath. Whether cage-fighting, working at a hog processing plant or running for office, angry or insistently idealistic, the men all seek to express what they’ve experienced.
Agnes Varda’s The Beaches of Agnes (Les plages ‘Agnes) parses the past in another way. Looking back at her own experience as an artist, partner, and mother, she’s beset by memories that, she says, “swarm around me like confused flies.” A provocative recollection of her life in and as cinema, her memoir is lovely and allusive.
Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City reshapes his childhood in Liverpool by evoking a theater stage with curtains. The gesture announces its own artifice and underlines the forms of art that have shaped his self-understanding. These influences include the movies he loved as a child, as well as Catholic rituals and architecture now inscribed on his very soul.
October Country, directed by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, is a lovely, lyrical meditation on family ghosts, the implacable effects of the past on the present. It uses mid-autumn’s stark poetry to suggest the family’s haunting by ghosts, from wartime traumas and domestic abuses.
In the wonderfully deliberate 24 City, Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke looks at another sort of family fabric, in the form of histories recalled over three generations of workers in a state-owned factory, now closing to make room for an apartment complex in Chengdu. Combining interviews with reenacted scenes and readings, the movie illustrates the overlapping of real life and narrative.
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Sugar also considers the effects of loss and longing. A fiction film focused on a real-life dilemma—the exploitation of Dominican players by the MLB—the film stars newcomer Algenis Perez Soto as the titular pitcher. Discovered at home, his move to the States means everything to his family. The film rethinks the costs of success, the daily negotiations and minor-seeming repressions that reshape the lives of talented athletes.
Two other films look at familial crises more closely. So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain shows how two small girls cope with their mother’s absence. The seven-year-old, played by Hee-yeon Kim, is a complex and fascinating individual, not the object of adult fantasy or nostalgia.
Clair Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum (35 rhums) centers on a beguiling father-daughter relationship. Gorgeously played by Alex Descas and Mati Diop, they are starting to seek connections elsewhere. Yet they also hang onto one another, their choices rarely clear even to themselves, even as the movie delicately indicates their emotional and moral connections.
And two more documentaries reveal the real life effects of loud violence, focused through the harrowing work of doctors in the midst of global catastrophes. Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders, directed by Mark Hopkins, looks at the efforts of Medecins Sans Frontieres. The film doesn’t smooth over what goes wrong and leaves unresolved the stories of its doctor subjects. Such messy narrative structure exemplifies the disorder and difficulty of each day.
Similarly, Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Paolo Santolini’s beautifully made, honestly astonishing Back Home, Tomorrow (Domani torno a casa) alternates between two stories of children in need of care. Each is framed by the work of the Italian aid organization, Emergency. While the children’s struggles are surely compelling in themselves, the documentary’s immersion in their perspectives is inspired. Inventive and wise, the movie grants insight into troubles that no child should have to endure.