Thursday, July 9, 2009

2009 Progress Report

Well, we're halfway through the year. I guess it's time to take a look at where we are in terms of the 2009 movie year. I have to admit it hasn't been a great year, but the great films often are released in the last six months of the year. And there have been some very good films this year...even some big, imperfect films that won major points for ambition. So let's take a look at what, if I made my top 10 list for 2009 right now, would be on the list.

1. Moon:It's right now a very very tight race between this and "Up." But Duncan Jones'low-budget indie sci-fi drama is such an unexpected surprise that rightnow it has the edge. I love low-budget science forces filmmakers to actually deal with ideas and concepts instead of using CGI as a crutch. Sam Rockwell should be guaranteed and Oscar nomination for his work here and I love that Jones takes an intriguing concept and then explores its implications. An intelligent, funny, philosophical and touching film that never ceases to be entertaining.

2.Up:I'd love to say that I'm getting tired of putting Pixar on this list year after year, but the truth is it makes me giddy. Every time at bat it just seems that the studio's wizards are challenging themselves and raising the bar higher in terms of story-telling. "Up" is a wonderful film in every way--it has great characters, hilarious gags and thrilling action. But, just like "The Incredibles," "WALL-E" and "Ratatouille," the film has deeper things on its mind and this wonderful little film tackles themes of love and loss, friendship and risk.

3. Away We Go:It's cool to hate Sam Mendes these days, I get it. I don't understand the hatred--I think he makes very beautifully-photographed films and gets fantastic performances from his actors. But it's true that with "Revolutionary Road" he may have become the go-to guy for bitter screeds about American family life. That's why this little comedy, written by David Eggers and featuring Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski as a very happy and very much in love couple, is so refreshing. As the two look for a place to raise their child they encounter various examples of the American family--they learn what they don't want, what they do want and--most importantly--that no one's getting it completely right; the best they can do is their best. It's a minor film but one that is very funny and packs a surprising emotional punch in the third act...all the while still focused on two characters who we love spending time with. An underrated little gem.

4. Public Enemies:Maybe I'm just a sucker for any film involving G-Men, Tommy Guns and Bank Robbers, but Michael Mann's fascinating crime epic had me in the palm of its hand from beginning to end. Johnny Depp gives a great performance as John Dillinger and Christian Bale is surprisingly effective as the soft-spoken, out-of-his-element FBI agent who pursues him. Some have hated Mann's use of digital cameras here, but I love the immediacy it brings...and no one can film a shoot-out better than Mann, who is at the top of his game here.

5. I Love You, Man:The best Judd Apatow movie that doesn't involve Judd Apatow whatsoever. It pleases me to no end that Paul Rudd and Jason Segel are able to headline a movie; the two are possibly the most likable character actors in comedy right now. This "bromantic comedy" doesn't really bring anything new to the table--"Seinfeld" was riffing on the similarities between male friendships and dating relationships 10 years ago--but rather Rudd and Segel bring the funny and have a wonderful chemsitry together. And like the Apatow films, there's a sweetness to it...this is a movie for guys about the importance of male friendship and camaraderie and I think the best comedies right now tap into that emotional truth.

6. Watchmen:I don't think "Watchmen" entirely succeeds as a movie--and I really want to see Zach Snyder's director's cut to see if it improves on what was changed and left out. But it's probably as close as we could have ever hoped to getting a faithful and skilled adaptation of what is possibly one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th Century. Snyder created a very grown-up take on the comic book movie and the film grapples with many of the deep themes of Alan Moore's comics. The visuals are outstanding and, at times, it's possible to think that the comic book has been copied verbatim. For taking the risk and coming so close to success, I applaud the movie. And I also think there needs to be serious Oscar consideration for Jackie Earle Hayley as Rorshach and Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan.

7. Star Trek:The most purely entertaining adventure of the summer. I'm not a Trek fan but JJ Abrams may have convinced me to give it a shot. His film is a perfectly-paced and realized piece of entertainment--funny, thrilling and a blast from start to finish. And Abrams--the best producer in television right now--understands the importance of having engaging characters to carry a story. I'll follow his Enterprise crew wherever they choose to go next.

8. Drag Me to Hell:Sam Raimi. Back to horror, reminding us of the pure joy of walking the tightrope between slapstick and terror. The seance scene is on par with anything from 'Evil Dead'--a perfect mix of horror and bizarre comedy. Just a real blast of a film that too many people ignored.

9. Knowing:Yes, the majority of critics hated this. But it's not fair. "Knowing" may not be on par with director Alex Proya's "Dark City," but it's a chilling and fun little sci fi thriller that, like "Moon," pushes its themes as far as they'll go. The ending may leave some cold but I dug it. . . I love the mix of the spiritual and the scientific that is on display here. And for once Nicolas Cage is in a believable role in a studio movie.

10.The Hangover:Two words: Zach Galifinakis. His questioning about Haley's Comet had me doubled over for about five minutes. A wonderfully absurd, blissfully male-centric comedy. I love that it's not about a night of debauchery in Vegas but about what happens to those guys who just couldn'thandle that night. Not the most original concept but director Todd Phillips really proves just how essential the right actors are to a film--I will gladly follow Bradley Cooper, Justin Bartha, Ed Helms and Galifinaks back to long as Mike Tyson comes around again.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.