A Serious Man (2009)
While The Hurt Locker and Goodbye Solo came close, I had not yet seen a 2009 movie I would call great. Until Friday. A Serious Man stands with the very best of the Coen Brothers films and is a remarkable achievement.
The brothers follow up their last, star-studded movie, the enjoyable if light Burn After Reading (with Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton) with a movie full of virtual unknowns playing a Jewish community in 1967 suburban Minnesota.
The movie stars Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik, an upstanding man whose life if falling apart on him. His wife is leaving him for the horrifyingly soft-spoken Cy Ableman (Fred Melamed in one of the funniest performances I've seen in a long while), his children barely acknowledge him, a student at the college he teaches at is trying to bribe him, and his brother won't leave his house and spends all his time draining the cyst on his neck.
The Coens (along with their masterful cinematographer Roger Deakins) have created a world that feels specific and inhabited. This is a world of an insulated Jewish community (much like where the Coens were raised) that mostly stays to themselves. Some of the best scenes involve Larry's visits to various Rabbis, who attempt to give him some meaning. Throughout the movie, various questions of religion and meaning in life are raised (without ever sacrificing the comedy).
I actually don't want to tell too much about the movie because it would spoil its many surprises. The Coens are masters at setting up surprising scenes that milk the audience's expectations, and this movie is no exception. It also has an ending that I found brilliant, but will probably prove as divisive as the enigmatic finale to No Country for Old Men. While I have enjoyed just about all the Coen Brothers films (perhaps excepting Intolerable Cruelty), A Serious Man stands with Fargo and No Country for Old Men as one of their unqualified masterpieces.
I have also been trying to catch up on my 2009 releases on video. Here are a few quick thoughts.
Sin Nombre (2009)
A sort of cross between City of God, El Norte, and Maria Full of Grace, and unfortunately it suffers a bit in comparison to these great movies. Sin Nombre tells the story of a young gang member attempting to escape from gang brutality, and a girl who is traveling to the United States with her family. The movie is told with grace and simplicity, but I never felt as fully invested in the characters as I did in other movies that told a similar story.
No, not the movie about cooking and Julia Child. This one stars Tilda Swinton as an alcoholic train-wreck of a woman who kidnaps a young boy in order to make some cash. The chief reason to see this movie, and its a good one, is Swinton's performance. In a role 180 degrees removed from her Oscar-winning supporting role in Michael Clayton, Swinton fully inhabits the role and doesn't make a play for audience sympathy. I admired the way this movie didn't go for easy sentiments or redemption. Its tough-minded about the way Julia acts, and yet the audience remains watching because we can't turn away. It's a little overlong, and a few elements of the plot are perhaps too far-fetched, but it's definitely worth seeing for Swinton's performance (easily the best female performance I've seen so far this year).