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The Best of 2009 — The Honorable Mentions

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1) Wallander: One Step Behind

2) Departures

3) The Girlfriend Experience

4) Working Miracles

Honorable Mention: 'Wallander: One Step Behind'

Wallander: One Step Behind | Nicely constructed and engaging TV movie mystery starring the great Kenneth Branagh who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in this episode. Wallander is actually based on an earlier Swedish TV series, which in turn was based on a Swedish series of mystery novels. The BBC took a crack at the character themselves, and unlike American versions of international shows-- the original author supervised these TV movies. In comparison to most mystery shows and movies out there ala Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Monk, and even Psych, the character of Wallander is not about the eccentricities of his personality. Because of that, Branagh plays him mostly straight and shockingly vulnerable. Most literary and cinematic interpretations of detectives are impenetrable and confident, but Wallander is a normal guy caught in an eccentric world instead of vice versa. In this mystery, Wallander tries to find the connection between his murdered partner of several years on the force and a series of odd random murders happening all over Sweden. Kurt Wallander finds himself retracing his partner's steps to discover the killer's identity, while at the same time, finding out things about himself. The author of this series made it very clear that he wanted his hero to change over time as the series went on, so Wallander grows increasingly exhausted as the case ensues. His lack of sleep and inability to take care of himself leads to frustrating medical news as well as the discovery that one of the people of interest on the case knew his daughter; she once overheard her describing Wallander as a "crap dad." Like Monk, it's not all about the mystery. It's half about Wallander and half-mystery. In the end, we realize that this whole case was intended for a detective to examine it. Just as the killer is pulling off a Se7en-eseque crime, we as an audience are examining Wallander, and Branagh is definitely up to the task of bringing Wallander to life.

Honorable Mention: 'Departures'

Departures | Despite the fact that this film is the Academy's winner for Best Foreign Film from 2008 (from Japan), it did not achieve a theatrical distribution in the United States till May of 2009. Therefore, it is being counted as one of the best Honorable Mentions of 2009. This film, in spite of its subject matter, is a surprisingly fun, spiritual journey. For some reason, humans find humor in ironic situations, no matter how morbid. In some ways, it is our only way to cope with some of the bleakest issues. Here, we are introduced to a cello player named Daigo who has recently lost his job. He has always envisioned his place in an orchestra his entire life, so this news comes as quite a shock to him. In order to make ends meat, he and his wife move back to his hometown and stay at his late mother's former coffee shop. The best job in the classifieds is for Departures, which Daigo assumes has to do with a travel agency. The man who put the ad in the paper quickly exclaims, "That's a typo. It is supposed to say The Departed." What follows is a very humorous series of events. Daigo is not sure if he wants to continue this job despite the good pay, and he is worried his wife might find out that he has become the town's new assistant mortician. On the other hand as another part to this equation, there is a strange accomplishment that Daigo feels when preparing the dead for their final resting places whilst giving families that crucial closure they need. Departures reminds me of two famous earlier Japanese filmmakers' work: Akira Kurosawa and Seijun Suzuki. The humor of a trainee mortician is very akin to Suzuki's work where absurd notions emerge from tense situations. Suzuki was well known for thriving on these types of experiences throughout his films, but the cultural beauty and personal anguish all the characters face is also akin to Akira Kurosawa. Like Ikiru and Red Beard, there is a great delicateness toward the treatment of death. They may be dead, but they are still people. For this cellist, there is also music to be seen in this practice.

Honorable Mention: 'The Girlfriend Experience'

The Girlfriend Experience | A really fascinating hodgepodge of seemingly unrelated moments inside the lives of an expensive call-girl and her businessman boyfriend. I noticed a number of people who state in their 'user reviews' that they do not understand or inevitably like this movie, but I found it to be one of Steven Soderbergh's best works he has made in a while. Oddly enough, it is very similar to (500) Days of Summer in which both movies tell their stories through glimpses and vignettes into the main character's life. If (500) Days of Summer represented a happy day, then The Girlfriend Experience is the grim night. Sasha Grey, known for her 'blue movies,' seems to be an unusual choice for this role, but considering what she has to talk about and do with her clients-- it seems logical that she would be one of a few women entertainers willing to go there without it looking uncomfortable or rehearsed. Her personality on screen is very cold and calculating most of the time, but as the film goes on, I got a sense of her shield slowly peeling away. When there is little left to hide, her vulnerability really comes through with surprising results. The film takes its time delving into the life of a successful prostitute and how some are paid millions of dollars in order to make rich people feel like they have a real girlfriend for a few hours. Ergo, the title apparently makes reference to an ideal where these women act like they've known these men for years. It is very interesting that this film is set during the presidential 2008 election because many of these men are constantly discussing how the economy is starting to crumble, but that is just one part of the much bigger pie. The woman's relationship to her boyfriend, who is well aware of her profession, is starting to let the unpleasantries of the world's oldest profession bother him. The film reveals vignettes of his world, as well as hers, and how it might be time for them to move on. The film's non-linear style of storytelling really felt authentic and it is that kind of offbeat way of looking at things that appealed to this reviewer and hopefully to audiences alike.

Honorable Mention: 'Working Miracles'

Working Miracles | A gem of a film and a triumphant comeback for director Bradford May (Mortal Sins, Ice, Darkman II: The Return of Durant). At first glance, this could be seen as another fluff Hollywood piece. However in May's best films, the script is not the only thing that is telling a story. As the film begins, the audience is bombarded with scene after scene of tremendously happy people telling each other tremendously happy things. The instant a supporting character mentions he is ill, reality finally sets in. There is no indication in the script that these people are inadvertently living in Pleasantville, so it is one of May's interesting tone shifts he accomplishes through his actors' performances. This back-and-forth design between extreme happiness and truthful reality repeats throughout the entire film and becomes a theme: 'people telling each other what they want to hear to be happy' vs. 'the cold, sobering truth.' And this is not even the premise of the story! This is where it might sound a bit Hollywood. A not-too-smart, but good looking janitor (meek faced Eddie Cibrian of CSI: Miami fame) discovers after a near-fatal accident that he has acquired powers that can physically heal others. In what first sounds like a reconfiguration of John Travolta's Phenomenon character, there is a nice twist to this blessing/curse. It takes a toll on the lead character's own health in order to heal someone. The doctor here implies that it functions like an immune system that can work on other people, but to make it work comes at too high a cost for the janitor. The film is built on so many ironies that it is intriguing where it goes. Main character wants to heal, but it hurts him, his sick uncle does not want to be healed, and just when the town thinks they have a hero... he quickly becomes the villain in their eyes when a couple healing attempts go awry. Despite this being promoted as some possible religious film, Bradford May provides another irony by intentionally adding sexual innuendo to one of the miracles when man heals fiance. Bradford May's past work as a Director of Photography is still apparent with its dark, moody, but pleasing beautiful lighting. As seen in a number of his films, his analyses on neurotic figures still continue into this film. The truth is that we can not help everyone. As indicated by his underrated status in the world of cinema, this reviewer does not think everyone can enjoy a Bradford May film (and some may be put off by this film's overwhelming use of pop songs like in the case of my #2 pick [The Best of 2009: (500) Days of Summer]), but this should be recommended for its fascinating thematic and directorial choices made by a unique filmmaker.