best film: The White Ribbon from Michael Haneke

  • The White Ribbon is a magnum opus from Haneke and easily his most visually spectacular film
  • On top of the picturesque beauty, The White Ribbon is formally accomplished (Haneke is one of the great formal masters) as well, and that is what he is most well known for.
  • Ernst Jacobi does the voice over of the school teacher as an older man in flashbacks and whenever he speaks, Haneke uses these gorgeous landscapes shots in jaw-dropping monochrome

voice-over narration accompanies the incredible landscapes– Haneke’s trademark formal prowess

  • No musical score- like all of Haneke’s work
  • The narration says the events “clarify some things that happened to this country”
  • Stern parents to say the least: the Baron, the Doctor, the Pastor – he is the one who institutes the white ribbon on his children to remind them of innocence (he really means sinlessness and purity- a key word here in Germany).
  • Gorgeous hallway shot of a dead woman in bed (we just see her legs) at the 13 minute mark. A meticulously designed frame. Actually it looks more like Bela Tarr than Haneke. Another hallway shot later as we get just the audio of the child being beaten for his bad behavior.

30 minutes in is the wheat stunner of a shot

  • Haneke is not normally known for photography attractive enough to rival Terrence Malick
  • The narrative is superb as well: mysterious incidents, the Baron’s son goes missing, a laborer has an accident, suicides, torture– fire, it is all building… a film about death
  • Haneke keeps his trademark chilly distance in his shot length—mostly medium and medium-long shots
  • many immaculately crafted medium-long tableau shots including the final frame below
  • A really strong shot of the alley of the church at 65 minutes and then the winter trees at 68- art museum quality photography capturing the seasons
  • A scene right out of Bergman’s Winter Light between the doctor and his assistant (who he is sleeping with). “You’re ugly, flabby and have bad breathe” and that is a sample of how he speaks to her
  • Again with the voice-over and landscapes—a rigorous form like always from Haneke—winter montage at 86 minutes
  • Certainly in-line with Haneke’s philosophies on evil—-tie-ins to this generation of future Nazi children and the timeline with The Great War starting
  • Haneke builds insulated worlds for his characters- a sort of monstrous dollhouse
  • Leering children in the frame—disturbing—it does make you think of Village of the Damned

Absolute perfection in the final shot – a magnificent frame at the church and then slowly fading to black. It’s not dissimilar from Cache’s final frame. No resolution.


most underrated: There are as many as four films that stand out in 2009 as being unforgivably underrated by the TSPDT consensus. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising may lead the way but Pedro Almodovar Broken Embraces, Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control and Xavier Dolan’s I Killed My Mother are all infuriatingly missing from the TSPDT 21st century consensus top 1000.


Almodovar often works in the melodrama genre (Sirk) or the thriller genre (Hitchcock) and Broken Embraces leans much more heavily to the Hitchcock side. At the 92-minute mark- the Judit (Blanca Portillo) character against the vibrant curtains.

Valhalla Rising is Refn’s seventh film it is his strongest effort to date in 2009. He is honing his style: hyper masculine., sparse dialogue, dramatic pauses ,and majestic visuals.

at the 76-minute mark. Gary Lewis is the actor is foreground right, background left is another Christian follower played by Jamie Sives- the river flowing behind…sublime.

Jarmusch’s formal rigor stretched to the extremes—repetition, tone and visuals are the emphasis—Jarmusch has never made a more beautiful film, It is demanding and  Jarmusch misses an opportunity by making it 112 minutes—at 92 minutes and with a superior score (like one from Dead Man by Neil Young)  this is a masterpiece. Incredible Spanish canvas shot by WKW long-time photographer and collaborator Christopher Doyle. As the title says a “Point Blank” production—Jarmusch’s company—this is very much influenced by the 1967 John Boorman masterpiece – a stoic man on a mission—a B-film story- on top of an art-house backdrop (this could be a Antonioni masterwork).

Soft focus repetition—really quite wonderful. Other formal repetition – the café “Two espressos, in two separate cups”,  red colors, exchanging match boxes, lying in bed contemplating, yoga (in a tailored suit) vignettes with colorful outside characters (from John Hurt to Tilda Swinton to the Paz de la Huerta as “the nude woman” to Gael Garcia Bernal to Bill Murray at the end).  Architecture as character through angles—  Isaach De Bankolé lost in the mise-en-scene. This is Antonioni– think of the scenes of Jeanne Moreau lost in La Notte swallowed up by the modern architecture. Production designer here Eugenio Caballero worked on Pan’s Labyrinth and would go on to work with Cuaron on Roma


most overrated:  Above are listed four films that should be near the of the list for 2009. There are four films that need to move down to make way for the more deserving. A Prophet, Fish Tank, Up and White Material are all somewhere in the top 10 of 2009 according to the TSPDT consensus and should not be. Up has an brilliant opening that makes for shot a great short film. The opening is impressive to look at, innovative in its storytelling and it packs an emotional well earned wallop emotionally. However, the parade of dogs final chapter just does not work as well and that brings the overall film down (Wall-E, Pixar’s effort from 2008 suffers a similar fate actually).


gems I want to spotlight: There are bigger debut and first time archiveable films from 2009 but Tom Ford’s A Single Man (not to be confused with the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man) is evidence that this fashion designer is also a budding filmmaker as well. Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a film I revisit often and Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime could be another choice for the underrated category if that category was not already overstuffed for 2009. Lastly, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince proves to be the strongest film from the series.


I’ have seen enough of David Yates as director (good—but nothing special) to attribute the artistic triumph of the film here to director of photography Bruno Delbonnel. Yates directed the Harry Potter before and after this (both without Delbonnel) and they don not look like the Half-Blood Prince. There are a dozen breathtaking frames. Draco Malfoy at the sink with Harry behind him, the landscape establishing shots, the room of requirement (which looks like a James Whale film- the father of English horror).

This is the only Harry Potter film to be nominated for best cinematography and it absolutely is warranted. Delbonnel worked with Jean-Pierre Jeunet on Amelie and A Very Long Engagement- a strong resume- also after this with the Coen brothers on Inside Llewyn Davis. 

Renowned fashion designer Tom Ford was 48 years old when making his debut film- 2009’s A Single Man

obviously the clothes and costume are impeccable, but Ford shows a keen eye for detail on several cinematic levels


trends and notables:

  • 2009 may not quite be 2007, but it is closer in quality to the famed 2007 year than the lackluster 2008 year in cinema that proceeds it. There are quality films that will most certainly land on the top 1000 greatest films of all-time that do not make the top 10 of the year cut below
  • Michael Haneke may be the director of the decade and 2009 with The White Ribbon is one hell of a capper. 2009 marks Haneke’s fifth top 10 of the year film, and fourth of the decade.
  • The Coen brothers’ remarkable career continues with A Serious Man. They are on a run from 2007-2010 that includes a masterpiece, a highly-recommend film, a must-see/masterpiece border film and a highly-recommend/must-see film in four consecutive years with no break.

an inspired shot angle and lens selection from A Serious Man

  • Quentin Tarantino bounces back 2007’s Death Proof (his weakest effort) with 2009’s Inglourious Basterds– sort of reestablishing himself as one of the greatest contemporary auteurs

the opening of Inglourious Basterds is its own perfect Leonesque short film

the low angle trunk shot twice (a nice formal set up) carving the swastikas including the brilliant “Masterpiece” ending—truly commendable

  • Avatar is the box office supernova and obviously a major story in 2009. It makes for a very proud one-two punch for box office champions of 2008 and 2009 with The Dark Knight. These two serve as evidence that there does not always have to be a large gulf between art and commerce.

Avatar captured the attention of both the mass public and cinephiles in 2009. Also, it marked James Cameron’s first film since 1997 (Titanic)- quite a gestation period.

  • This is a ridiculous class of auteurs with first time archiveable films. Xavier Dolan turned twenty (20) in 2009 making him, if I am not mistaken, the youngest director of a top 10 of the year quality film. Yorgos Lanthimos announced himself with Dogtooth. Cary Fukunaga delivered Sin Nombre and Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love just slides off the back end of the top 10 of the year because of the unusually high caliber of films from 2009.

Montreal’s own Xavier Dolan (also starred in the film) directed I Killed My Mother

there is no grading on a curve for young Dolan– few films from this, or any year, are as meticulously designed as Dolan’s debut effort

the definition of an artistic wunderkid

Lanthimos has been one of the greatest auteurs working since 2009’s Dogtooth put him on the map

symmetry and color from Guadagnino’s I Am Love

this incoming crop of directors not only made 2009 special- but made the future of cinema look quite bright at the turn of the decade

  • Lars von trier starts The Depression Trilogy in 2009 with Antichrist 

Lars von Trier closes the decade with his strongest work since the beginning of the decade in 2000 (Dancer in the Dark). In the film the couple take a Stalker-like metaphysical journey and the film was dedicated to Tarkovsky by von Trier.

At the 70 minute mark- the frame of naked bodies intertwined with roots of trees. Lars von Trier is always an enfant terrible. If one can look past some of the controversy, the film is an exceptional work, it is yet another feather in the cap for the great Danish master.


best performance male: Christoph Waltz was over fifty with decades of film and television work under his belt when he was cast as Hans Landa in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Waltz’s trilingual talents (English, German, French) make him a perfect fit for the role. It is far more than that though. The unique emphasis Waltz put on the diction make him (along with Samuel L. Jackson) the perfect vehicle for Tarantino’s trademark dialogue. Michael Stuhlbarg would be a very worthy straight out winner of his category for his work in A Serious Man if it were not for Waltz. Like Waltz, Stuhlbarg is a late bloomer and 2009 and this film (imagine getting plucked out of relative obscurity to star in a Coen brothers or Tarantino film) changed the trajectory of his career (which is actually more impressive than Waltz’s at this point). That is it here for 2009- a light year for this category.


best performance female:  This category has undeniably more depth than their male counterparts for 2009. Anne Dorval is as good a place as any to start here and Dorval’s story is crazy similar to Waltz and Stuhlbarg. Dorval had plenty of credits to her name when she took up with young Dolan for I Killed My Mother. Penelope Cruz, on the other hand, was a big name already in 2009. Cruz got her start in the archives with Almodovar, then went to Hollywood, then came back to working with Almodovar and Broken Embraces is the best work of her career to that point in 2009. In one particular scene, she is sitting wearing a platinum wig in front of big mirror– she is clearly a born movie star. Mélanie Laurent earns a spot for her performance in Inglourious Basterds. Multiple viewings of the film reward Laurent’s performance. Upon first blush, she may be overshadowed by the dazzling Waltz and louder (and funnier) Brad Pitt. But Laurent’s largely non-verbal performance is crucial to the film. Abbie Cornish does exemplary work in Bright Star– another standout female acting performance in a Jane Campion film that gets a mention (the fourth I believe) in this category. Lastly, Angeliki Papoulia gives a bizarre and undoubtedly memorable performance fitting of Lanthimos’ world in Dogtooth.

the circle window of Laurent in Inglourious Basterds leading up to the David Bowie “Cat People” sequence


top 10

  1. The White Ribbon
  2. A Serious Man
  3. Inglourious Basterds
  4. Valhalla Rising
  5. Avatar
  6. Bright Star
  7. Dogtooth
  8. Fantastic Mr. Fox
  9. The Limits of Control
  10. I Killed My Mother



from Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void. I hope the makers of Birdman (2014) cited their source when using this shot five years later.

a stunning look at the apocalypse in John Hillcoat’s The Road

From Public Enemies – Michael Mann continues his experimentation with video. By 2009 much of the grain is gone (that line of prisoners at Michigan City in the opening is as crisp as it gets) but you still get the rough ugly shadow from time to time—especially in the interiors. With von Trier (another longtime experimenter in video) the shadows and some of the ugliness is intentional. With Mann—it is not. Whether it a triumph of location scouting or production design (or both)- the 1933-era banks and courthouses are a character in the film. In several occasions Mann’s low-angle camera allowed the detailed design of the ceiling to act as mise-en-scene.

From Wes Anderson- Fantastic Mr. Fox. The stop motion animation is such a natural fit for Wes Anderson- he is the diorama and dollhouse master (and I say that with the utmost admiration for his auteur status and craft). It is part Road Dahl but entirely of Anderson’s unique cinematic world both in content and that trademark abundance of visual style—so meticulous. One thing that is new is the color pattern—this entire film has a gorgeous yellow/orange/brown autumn glow. It is absolutely breathtaking —yellow chapter titles bounce off it but we have great miniature work and establishing shots.

a cinematic painting to rival any from 2009 from Jane Campion’s Bright Star

Campion’s 2009 film was too readily dismissed by many as a stuffy period piece- but with all due respect to Merchant Ivory- they never made a film this arresting to look at

yet another from Campion’s work- the costume design work was nominated, and the cinematographer is Greig Fraser (Dune, 2021)

this cinematic painting is from Tom Hooper’s The Damn United. The minimal design with the red flourish on the lamp shade

from Bong Joon-ho’s Mother– yet another film that would have landed on the top 10 of 2008 but cannot quite find a spot on 2009’s list. This shot is a sort of variation of the greatest single shot from Kurosawa’s Ikiru (the playground structure shot).



Archives, Directors, and Grades

500 Days of Summer-Webb R
A Prophet- Audiard HR
A Serious Man- Coen MS/MP
A Single Man- T. Ford HR
Adventureland- Mottola R
Ajami – Copti, Shani R
An Education- Scherfig R
Antichrist- von Trier MS
Avatar- Cameron MS
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans- Herzog R
Bright Star- Campion MS
Broken Embraces- Almodovar HR/MS
City of Life and Death – Chuan R
Coraline – Selick R
Crazy Heart – S. Cooper R
District 9 – Blomkamp R
Dogtooth- Lanthimos MS
Enter the Void – Noé HR/MS
Fantastic Mr. Fox – W. Anderson MS
Fish Tank- Arnold R
Get Low- Schneider R
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – D. Yates HR
I Am Love- Guadagnino HR
I Killed My Mother – Dolan MS
Inglourious Basterds – Tarantino MS
Lebanon- Maoz R
Life During Wartime – Solondz HR
Mary and Max – Elliot R
Me and Orson Welles- Linklater R
Mother- Bong HR
Police, Adjective – Porumboiu R
Precious – Daniels R
Public Enemies –  M. Mann R/HR
Red Cliff II- Woo R
Sin Nombre- Fukunaga R/HR
Star Trek- Abrams HR
State of Play – K. Macdonald R
The Damn United- Hooper R
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo- Oplev R
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – Gilliam R
The Informant! – Soderbergh R
The Last Station- Hoffman R
The Limits of Control – Jarmusch MS
The Maid – Silva R
The Messenger- Moverman R
The Red Riding Trilogy- Jarrold, Marsh, Tucker R
The Road- Hillcoat R
The Secret in Their Eyes – Campanella R/HR
The White Ribbon – Haneke MP
Up – Docter R
Up in the Air- J. Reitman R
Valhalla Rising – Refn MS
Vincere – Bellocchio R
Where The Wild Things Are- Jonze R
White Material- Denis R
Zombieland- Fleischer R



*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives