2. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)
Joining Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) at the pinnacle of the much-hyped 'Romanian New Wave,' and sharing the aforesaid film's wry critique of its nation's bureaucratic institutions, Police, Adjective organically refashions its movement's signature long-take aesthetic to stimulate viewer unease with the on-screen police investigation of a hash-smoking teenager. While Porumboiu's masterwork is in this sense exceedingly cinematic, as it is likewise for its activation of off-camera space through its use of sound cues, the film's eponymous interest in language, featured not only in its notably verbose denouement, but in a set of inserted, hand-written reports, insures that Police, Adjective also qualifies as mixed cinema of the highest order.
3. White Material (Claire Denis, France/Cameroon)
Seizing upon a personal idiom that combines tightly-framed, medium-length compositions and lyrical, contextualizing landscapes (through a distinctively rhythmic editing pattern), Denis' White Material ranks with the director's foremost achievements (i.e. Beau Travail and Friday Night). Sharing the decidedly subjective orientation of these earlier recreations of film form, White Material filters its narrative through a shifting interiority and shuffled temporality that affects its nightmarish portrait of post-colonial Africa, where DJ's call for revolt against the continent's remaining whites and child-soldiers sport firearms and machetes. As impressionistic a picture as Denis provides of this hell, White Material remains one of 2009's most vital works.
The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, United States/Japan)
Jarmusch's best film in a decade was also his most indifferently received, earning not only anemic box office receipts, but also undeservedly middling to negative reviews. As a work of cinematic art, however, The Limits of Control is both a major achievement and a departure for Jarmusch, replacing the director's arch-postmodernism with a surrealist form of modernism - inspired by Rivette - where fiction continuously bleeds into the film's reality; in this respect, The Limits of Control provides a bookend for the decade with David Lynch's similarly-influenced Mulholland Drive (2001). Abounding with careful references from the Spanish modernist canon, the Spain-set feature sides with the holders of bohemian values against American hegemony.
5. Around a Small Mountain (Jacques Rivette, France/Italy)
A small film in much more than its English-language name, Rivette's 84-minute feature nonetheless rises to the level of the director's major works thanks to the very scope that might otherwise suggest its slightness. Here, Rivette recasts the essence of his cinema as belonging not to the duration that marked his legendary, long-form L'amour fou (1969), Out One (1971/4) and Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), but rather to the principle of repetition shared by these and his latest. Around a Small Mountain accordingly proves a fundamentally auteurist pleasure, expanding as it does our understanding of Rivette's towering art, while renewing the primacy of fictional worlds (which spill out from underneath an Eastwoodian big-top) for his work.
Oxhide II (Liu Jiayin, China)
In contradistinction to Oxhide, Liu's sly comedic sequel presents a single facsimile of real-time across its minimal quantity of breathlessly long, stationary takes. The set-ups themselves extend the earlier work's visual restrictions, with bodies again frequently cropped both above the image and below. In the latter film especially, Liu's compositions rely on a very subtle choreography of movement, with the logic behind particular shot locations often revealed well after Liu's semi-analytic edits. Oxhide II ultimately inaugurates its own presentational metaphor to stand beside the under-lit, constricted framings of Oxhide, with the film's found proscenium underscoring the presentational nature of the food preparation narrative.
2009's biggest surprise, Guadagnino's I Am Love reclaims the very best of Italy's post-neorealismo golden age - Antonioni and especially Visconti - for its treatment of the dissolution of an aristocratic Milanese family. Utilizing long, fluid camera movements that recall both directors, Guadagnino's camera work nonetheless does not simply refer to its sources, but rather manages a degree of expressionism that has all-but-disappeared from contemporary art cinema. Add to this the director's impressionistic montage passages and John Adam's handsome score and I Am Love approaches an operatic ideal of total art. It is also the year's most sensual work, featuring strings of spittle in the midst of a passionate kiss and some truly haute cuisine.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, United States)
Though its stop-motion form might suggest otherwise, Fantastic Mr. Fox underscores the singularity and consistency of Anderson's oeuvre: in both respects, the director's work remains without parallel for an American filmmaker of his generation. Once again, Anderson articulates his fiction in reference to another medium - here, the children's book, which Anderson manages to make adult without losing his younger audience - with a narrative constructed around George Clooney's charismatic patriarch (cf. Royal Tenenbaum). Anderson's frontal framings, sense of style frozen in his early 1980s adolescence and expressions of the virtues of non-conformity and familial perseverance all reveal the filmmaker's unmistakable signature.
Bright Star (Jane Campion, United Kingdom/Australia/France)
Representing a major comeback for one of the signature directors of the 1990s - and not coincidentally to the previous decade's art-for-art's-sake aesthetic ethos - Campion's Bright Star articulates its maker's artistic program as an amalgamation of its two creator-leads: Campion works in a commercially viable form analogous to Fanny Brawne's (Abbie Cornish) dress-making, while producing lyrical art not unlike John Keats' (Ben Whishaw) poetry. As a highly characteristic example of her oeuvre, moreover, Bright Star again revises the gendered subject-object relationship to grant the film's female lead with maximal agency and subject-hood, whereas, atypical for an artistic biopic, the film's more famous male remains the work's cipher.
Offering a humanist variation on the iconography of Robert Bresson - particularly in its reinterpretation of Mouchette's (1967) concluding gesture - Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch suggests that humankind has only itself as it faces a very dangerous world. The reality that humanity must confront in Hadewijch is Europe's Islamification, which provides the continent's last remnants of religious devotion, save for the Catholic heroine of the film's title, along the real threat of jihad. Dumont's film, which betters Jacques Audiard's similarly concerned Cannes favorite A Prophet, is filled with moments of visually symbolism whether it is the rise of a crane or a sudden rain, while ultimately exploring Hadewijch's near-romantic devotion to the Christian God.