Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best Movies of 2009

The most telling thing about my top 10 films of 2009 are the films that I had to leave off…”District 9,” “Star Trek” and “Precious” were all in contention at one time or another. But these were the 10 that made me laugh, cry, think and be thankful to live in a time where anything is still possible at the movies.

And at the top of the list is the latest film by today’s greatest magic workers, who took a story of a widower, a Boy Scout and lots of balloons and soared away with audiences’ hearts.

1. Up: Last year, Pixar’s wonderful sci-fi comedy “WALL-E” topped my list of best films. Whether “Up” is as good as or better than that gem is up for debate, but one thing’s for sure: the story of an old man, a precocious child, a talking dog and a flying house is the best time I had at the theater in 2009. Heartbreakingly poignant, nail-bitingly exciting and side-splittingly funny, “Up” is the rare cinematic experience that takes viewers through the entire spectrum of emotion. It is a blissful, perfect piece of cinema filled with wonderful characters, unexpected depth and unending delight. Pixar is the gold standard in storytelling and “Up” is the most wonderful film of the year.


2. A Serious Man: Joel and Ethan Coen followed up the dark and foreboding “No Country for Old Men” with the zany political satire “Burn After Reading.” So it only stands to reason that the ever-unpredictable writing-directing team would take another left turn with this darkly funny meditation on faith, suffering, family and the wrath of God. Stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg is perfect as the put-upon Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor in 1970 Minnesota who tries to maintain his integrity even as his life begins to unravel. Stuhlbarg maintains his dignity and wins our empathy even as we’re laughing at the unfairness of Larry’s life. It’s been said this is the Coens’ most personal film and the attention to detail shown in the nuances of small-town Jewish community life evidence that this was a labor of love for the brothers. The film manages to balance shocking plot reversals, hilarious in the way that only life’s pain can be, with serious questions about faith and the nature of suffering to deliver a deceptively minor film that packs a surprising punch in its final moments.


3. Avatar: Twelve years after “Titanic,” James Cameron proves he’s still the king of the world. . . and he gives himself a whole new one to conquer as well. With the beautiful and exquisitely-detailed Pandora, the director gives us the most wonderfully realized computer-generated environment and, with the Na’vi, perfects the use of motion capture technology. The story may be derivative but in Cameron’s hands it doesn’t matter; it’s simply an excuse to introduce audiences to this new world and dazzle them for three hours with the most awesome and entertaining big screen spectacle since “Lord of the Rings.” In an age where the Internet and television continue to fight for our attention, Cameron reinvigorated the event movie and, by pushing special effects technology to its limit, reassured us that nothing is impossible in movies anymore. Michael Bay may make critics weep for the blockbuster; Cameron reminds us it’s not a lost cause.


4. Moon: This little seen sci-fi gem is one of the genre’s best entries since “The Matrix.” Sam Rockwell gives a powerful, funny and complex performance as a man struggling with isolation, loneliness and possibly insanity while waiting to return home from a three-year stint on a lunar outpost. After an accident nearly kills him, Rockwell’s character learns dark secrets that cut to the core of his identity and humanity. Director Duncan Jones creates a workmanlike, utilitarian atmosphere in space that keeps the film grounded in reality and Kevin Spacey pays homage to “2001” with his voice work as the station’s robotic helper, who may have an ulterior mission in mind. But it’s Rockwell’s fierce, heartfelt work that lifts the film into orbit. There was a time when science fiction probed the deeper questions of life, humanity and morality; thankfully “Moon” remembers and recaptures that spirit.


5. Inglourious Basterds: The final words of Quentin Tarantino’s war epic are “I think this may be my masterpiece.” Rarely has pretention felt so deserved. The “Kill Bill” director has wanted to make his men-on-a-mission film for years, but I doubt anyone expected this from him. The film is Tarantino at his absolute best, filled with long passages of exquisite, screw-turning dialogue punctuated by brief bursts of violence. Christoph Waltz’s turn as “The Jew Hunter” is as deliciously wonderful a villain as this decade has seen—evil has rarely been so charming. Brad Pitt hams it up as the redneck leader of a group of renegade soldiers, but it’s Melanie Laurent who gives the film its heart. As the vengeance-seeking owner of a Parisian movie theater, Tarantino uses the character to explore his two favorite themes: revenge and film. This may be the first war movie to be more about movies than combat and the exhilarating climax perfectly mixes absurdity, violence, tragedy, comedy and adrenaline to create one of the decade’s most flat-out entertaining set pieces. Funny, tense and surprisingly powerful, Tarantino creates such a glorious epic that we’re willing to follow him even as he rewrites the war’s ending.


6. The Hurt Locker: While audiences were flocking to Michael Bay’s brainless “Transformers” sequel, the best action film of the year was being ignored by the masses. Kathryn Bigelow’s look at Army bomb disposal units in Iraq is as tense and thrilling as films come, first jarring us with the horrific reality of a bomb explosion and then putting our nerves on edge as we wait for it to happen again. Newcomer Jeremy Renner is stunning as a combat-addicted adrenaline junkie, for whom a normal life in the suburbs is more of a nightmare than dealing with bombs and insurgents. Bigelow, the director of such high octane flicks as “Point Break,” hits a career high here, mixing psychological drama with an action thriller that adds up to one of the year’s most unforgettable film experiences.


7. (500) Days of Summer: Director Marc Webb’s comedy tells us at the outset that while it’s a story of boy meets girl, it is not a love story. Hogwash. “(500) Days of Summer” may technically be about a breakup, but its heart is filled with romance. Jason Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are perfect as two lovers who meet, mate and breakup in the course of a year and Scott Neustadter’s witty script bounces through time, genre and style with gleeful postmodern delight. It’s the first romantic comedy in ages to feel fresh, funny and intelligent. Yet the tale’s true appeal is how ably Webb plucks our heart strings; everyone has their own Summer and, for many, 500 days is not enough time to make us forget them.


8. Up in the Air: Director Jason Reitman delivered a scathing look at modern America, a charming and witty romantic comedy and a powerful human drama about isolation and relationships all wrapped up into one wonderful little film. George Clooney gives the best performance of his career as Ryan Bingham, a “termination facilitator” who lives his life from terminal-to-terminal, not only bragging about his skill in avoiding serious human relationships, but conducting seminars to tell others how they can do the same thing. Reitman’s third film—following the equally wonderful “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno”—examines our current economic devastation, our tendency to isolate ourselves and our growing dependence on electronics as relationship surrogates. Yet his cast—featuring stand-out work from Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman and newcomer Anna Kendrick—makes the entire ordeal charming, funny and light as a feather. It’s not until the bittersweet final moments that we begin to realize just how deeply Reitman has involved us, further confirming that he is one of the most intriguing directors to appear this decade.


9.The Fantastic Mr. Fox: Stop-motion animation, whimsical characters and storybook settings are a perfect fit for director Wes Anderson (“Rushmore”), who delivers his strongest work yet in this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story. Clooney is fantastic (pun intended) once again as the charming and sly Mr. Fox, who wages war on evil farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean (one fat, one short and one lean). While that plot alone might make for a delightful children’s film, it’s the very adult attention to detail and character that make this such a pleasure. Each animal character (wonderfully acted by Anderson favorites Bill Murray, Angelica Huston, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson) has a distinct, adult personality and each is given a moment to steal the spotlight (Schwartzman is particularly great). More than that, Anderson once again revisits his favorite themes of family and relationships and makes Mr. Fox’s behavior the result of a very-believable midlife crisis (some men buy Porsches; Mr. Fox kills chickens). This all adds up to an original, funny, whimsical and extremely enjoyable little masterpiece. As Mr. Fox would say: it’s pretty cussing great.


10. Where the Wild Things Are: Some accused director Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved story to be too deep, dark and disturbing for children. The truth, however, is that Jonze—the director of the brilliant “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation”—is not making a film just for children; he’s making a film for anyone who has ever been a child. And his imaginative, beautifully realized film, anchored by Max Record’s phenomenal performance, perfectly recaptures the unrestrained joy, energy, rage and fear of childhood. It’s tough, deep stuff and I can understand why the film has cut to the core of some critics (including this one) and left others cold; it’s not the fun, engaging and brainless dreck Hollywood normally throws at families. It is, instead, deep, profound, whimsical, truthful and a tad scary. It’s the best re-creation of what it feels like to be a child that I’ve ever seen.


1.Bruno: In 2006, I named “Borat” as one of the year’s best films. This year, Sacha Baron Cohen tops the “other” list with one of the biggest comedic miscalculations I’ve ever witnessed. Forget the fact that it’s easily the decade’s most offensive film; unlike “Borat,” Cohen doesn’t have a naïve, likable character to bounce off his unwitting subjects. Instead he has a vulgar, vain and obnoxious creation who thrusts his way into people’s faces with such violence that I can empathize with their shocked, angry reactions. Yes, it’s offensive. Yes, it’s rude. But “Bruno’s” biggest crime is being unfunny.

2. The Last House on the Left: I don’t hold Wes Craven’s original film in the high esteem that many critics do, but I’ll acknowledge that he takes his subject seriously and portrays it with the grit and somberness it deserves. This rancid remake—about two parents who turn into raving psychopaths when the men who raped and murdered their daughter and her friend turn up at their house—asks us not only to empathize with the wrathful parents (which is understandable) but to root them on as they torture, dismember and destroy the men. The film is told with such a slick gloss and the violence is so amped up that it’s obvious the producers want audiences to squirm and then cheer. But, given the subject matter, my only response is to get sick and weep for our culture.

3. (tie) X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Terminator: Salvation: Kicking off what turned out to be a fairly anticlimactic summer for blockbusters, Wolverine and John Connor managed the rare feat of taking two beloved franchises and killing all audience goodwill to them. Wolverine—easily one of the most dynamic Marvel heroes—tiredly slicked his way through a turgid prequel while Christian Bale’s monotonous rants and McG’s bland direction turned the Terminator’s “I’ll be back” from a promise into a threat.

4. Couple’s Retreat: This film’s cast has been involved in one way or another with projects like “Swingers,” “Wedding Crashers,” “Watchmen,” “Arrested Development,” “Elf” and “Iron Man.” Director Peter Billingsley was Ralphie in “A Christmas Story.” There, I just gave you seven things to watch rather than this trite, unfunny, cliché, boring mess of a romantic comedy. When it begins airing 30 times a year on TBS you’ll have every opportunity to see just how bad this movie is.

5. Hotel for Dogs: I gave this film a slight pass upon seeing it because while I was not entertained the kids in the audience seemed to enjoy it. But looking at my top ten list and seeing titles like “Up,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” I realize that this was the year when kids were actually respected at the box office with films of wit, originality, substance and heart. So shame on Nickolodeon films for this pandering, brainless mix of cute dogs, poop humor and obnoxious tween heroes.

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