Black Swan - Edges out Susperia as the greatest ballet horror film ever made. Natalie Portman, in perhaps her greatest performance to date, plays Nina Sayers, a repressed ballerina who gets cast as the two-sided lead in Swan Lake, but in order to play the uninhibited Black Swan part (the id to the lead White Swan's virginal fragility) her director insists she learn to loosen up and get in touch with herself, literally. Obsessed with achieving artistic perfection, she does her best. And as her repression cracks, so does the rest of her mind, leading to hallucinations of both the scary and sexy variety, hysterical arguments with her overprotective mom and possible violent actions against Winona Ryder. Everything we see is filtered through Nina's damaged consciousness, which means we can never be sure whether what we're seeing is real or not. But this is balanced by director Darren Aronofsky's resolute focus on the physical punishment of the ballet itself. We get the ugly realism of mutilated toes and feet mixed with the campiness of Natalie Portman turning into a bird. It's a potent mix of near, but not quite over, the top psychodrama and realism. Roman Polanski pulled off the same trick with Repulsion, but that film simply made me feel awful, while I loved this one. It probably comes down to the fact that I'm convinced that in the end, Nina does pull off the transcendence she was after, and that made it all worthwhile.
Winter's Bone - A melancholy noir from director Debra Granik about a poor Missouri teenager (Ree, played by Jennifer Lawrence) who attempts to hunt down her missing father before the cops seize her house, which he has used to post bail. Ree normally spends her time taking care of her little brother and sister and their mom, who's disabled in some way. She lives in a run-down back country of pickup trucks and meth dealers, her environment is by far the most interesting thing in the film. It isn't a mystery so much as a study of the world Ree has to deal with, managed by scary women but ruled by even scarier men, that takes on a near-mythological abstraction and unreality as it moves along. In the second half of the film, with the mystery slowly wound down to nothing, all we're left with is the girl in the environment, which has few rays of light (literally, the bleak overcast grayness of the cinematography is beautiful). She gets some help from her terrifying, but mostly decent uncle, played by Deadwood's John Hawkes, who is always great, but the only really helpful adult in the film is the local Army recruiter, who does his best to give her some hope. Still, it's not really a depressing film, it's more resigned to struggle on in the face of a vast American sadness.
Black Dynamite - It may not sound like much to praise a film for being the movie that Pootie Tang probably wanted to be, but it's either that, or it's the missing third part of the glorious Grindhouse triple feature. This playful sendup of 70s blaxploitation films is ridiculous, silly and more fun that it has any right to be. I swear I was completely sober when I watched it, and it was hilarious. Michael Jai White plays the titular hero, an ex-CIA agent who unretires to avenge the murder of his brother at the hand of gangsters, in a conspiracy involving drugs, orphanages, malt liquor, the fiendish Dr. Wu, master of Kung Fu Island and the Nixon White House. The #23 film of 2009.
Casino Jack and the United States of Money - A solid lefty documentary by Alex Gibney about Jack Abramoff and the scandal that is the American lobbying and campaign finance system. The most interesting thing about it are the early scenes of Abramoff in the College Republicans in the early 80s, where he palled around with Ralph Reed (the weasel best known for running the Christian Coalition), Grover Norquist (the libertarian who pioneered cutting taxes as a means of making government inoperable) and, hovering in the background, Karl Rove, the Dark Lord himself. Abramoff uncovered new and sleazy ways of laundering money to political groups (most egregiously by bilking Indian casinos and sending the money to right-wing, ostensibly Christian (and anti-gambling) groups. He also produced the Dolph Lundgren classic Red Scorpion, clips of which prove that even Jack Abramoff managed to do some good for the world.
Valhalla Rising - Mads Mikkelson stars as an enslaved, one-eyed Viking who escapes his Scottish tormentors (they tie him to a pole and watch him fight other men, apparently for entertainment, though he always wins in the most gruesome fashion) and, helped by a young boy, joins a group of Christians headed for the Crusades. Their ship gets lost in a fog, however, and they eventually end up in North America, with disastrous consequences. It stylistically lies somewhere between Dead Man and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, though it's far more brutal and bloody than either of those two masterpieces, or pretty much any other movie you're likely to see. Director Nicolas Winding Refn, whose last film Bronson, which I haven't seen yet, is supposed to be pretty good, drains every inch of hope out of the film, and the result is, I'm sure, very similar to what the world must have looked like to a psychotic, one-eyed Viking. It's a unique and powerful film, with a really beautiful darkness to its images, but I don't think it's a place I'd ever want to go to again. The #37 film of 2009.