Sunday, January 3, 2010

Best of 2009: Movies

2009 has come and gone, and with it came cinematic events both fantastic and traumatizing. As far as my personal viewing is concerned, I would say that this year is on par with the previous year. I've enjoyed this year, especially since 2010 should be interesting, since the consequences of 2007's writers' strike rears their ugly heads, but also because most of the stellar films this year were bursting with originality, rather than the usual humdrum mix of remakes and sequels (though there were plenty of those as well). Nevertheless, 2009 provided some excellent films, with my favorites below.
Honorable Mentions: Precious, Coraline, Bruno, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I Love You, Man, Food, Inc., Adventureland, Sherlock Holmes, Public Enemies, Moon
10. Zombieland: There's no way this film should have been as popular as it was. It was a zombie road trip buddy comedy featuring indie actors and Woody Harrelson. And yet with its mix of zombie survival tips, fantastic performances (especially Harrelson's gonzo-redneck bravura as Tallahassee), and a pitch-perfect cameo from Bill Murray, Zombieland succeeded as the best zombie movie of the year, as well as one of the best comedies of the year. The film also introduced director Reuben Fleischer to the world, whom we will hopefully see more from in the future.
9. (500) Days of Summer: The romantic comedy is an ailing genre, filled with cliches and dominated by good actresses playing shrill characters when they could be appearing in better films. But every once in a while, one comes along that ignores the conventions and proves that the genre still has storytelling power. (500) Days of Summer proved to be that film, and a breath of fresh air in a year of terrible rom-coms. Summer's strengths lied in its inventive narrative, told out of sequence, and terrific performances from stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. Summer also had the best music sequence of the year, bringing renewed joy to Hall & Oates' "You Make My Dreams."
8. The Hurt Locker: Who would have imagined that it would take a woman to revitalize the war movie? Kathryn Bigelow brings a stunning focus to the war on Iraq by observing the everyday lives of a group of soldiers who defuse IEDs, rather than making grand political statements. Bigelow layers the film with so much tension that every face in the background looks like a threat, and the defusing scenes are the most intense action sequences in recent memory. Its not just the direction, though. The entire cast, from rookie adrenaline junkie SSgt. William James (a top of his game Jeremy Renner) and uptight Sgt. JT Sanborn (an underrated Anthony Mackie) to a fantastic cameo appearance by Ralph Fiennes, delivers naturalistic performances that lend great tension to the film. The Hurt Locker is by far one of the greatest war films ever made, despite not featuring a single battle scene. (If you're a fan of Renner after seeing this, check out his before-anyone-knew-my-name portrayal as a difficult, dying punk star on the episode "Games" from the fourth season of House.)
7. Watchmen: Fanboys hated it. Everyone else just shrugged it off. But give Watchmen credit: it was one of the most ambitious adaptations ever made, and remained mostly faithful down to the frame of the original graphic novel. Plus, Watchmen took an admirable risk in changing the ending, making the movie stand alone from the source material (though it is thematically the same: what's the best way to save the world, ethically or efficiently?). But its also a great movie, featuring fantastic performances from Jackie Earle Haley as the morally ambiguous, gravel-voiced Rorshach and Billy Crudup as the blue radioactive Dr. Manhattan. Watchmen was the most underrated superhero film of the year.
6. Star Trek: This is how you properly reboot a franchise. Going back to the beginning and telling the story of how the Enterprise crew came together, the film rewrites Trek history while staying reverent to that same history. The story involves a lot of elements, including time travel (this is coming from J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman, of course) but it never gets bogged down by the curse of Too Many Ideas. Instead, Star Trek rides high on a buoyant atmosphere, a pitch-perfect cast, and exciting action. Star Trek is pure blockbuster entertainment, and proof that it is possible for a Star Trek film to be popular and great.
5. Antichrist: I was really hesitant to review this one, much less put it on the list. A dark, misogynistic film about a relationship that tragically (and graphically) disintegrates, Antichrist stirred up controversy upon its debut at Cannes, and again upon its release. Its a hard film to stomach, but a rewarding one. Director Lars von Trier supposedly wrote it in a fit of depression, and its themes of recovery and therapeutic methods of doing so show that he had very little faith in optimism. The film is the most gorgeously shot of the year, and Willem Dafoe and the radiant Charlotte Gainsbourg deliver heartbreaking performances. And, intentional or not, Antichrist turns out to be one of the best studies on the nature of evil ever put to film.
4. District 9: It's been a boom year for sci-fi, with such great films as Star Trek, Moon, and the ultra-successful Avatar reaching all audiences. District 9 is the crown jewel of the sci-fi revolution. Set in South Africa, the film flips genre conventions by having humans segregate the aliens after the latter accidentally land on Earth. It serves as an allegory for apartheid, but don't be fooled: its also a fantastic action movie that even provides emotional resonance (prawn Christopher's attempts to escape in order to save his son from abuse lends humanity to them). Sharlto Copley gives the breakout performance of the year as Wikus van de Merwe, a government agent tasked with evacuating the Prawns from District 9 into a new internment camp. Hopefully, director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp will have plenty of new films in the future.
3. Up: Pixar's winning streak seems to know no end. After the amazing Wall-E last year, they return again with Up, the heartwarming story of an old man who flies to South America in his house lifted by balloons. The film is gorgeously rendered, with heartbreaking performances from such memorable characters as Carl, Russel, Kevin the tropical bird and the hilarious Dug, a dog who can talk through a special box. A daring adventure, a terrific buddy comedy, and a touching story of remembering a lost loved one, Up is another win for the Pixar team.
2. Where the Wild Things Are: Another major trend in 2009 is miraculous reinventions of classic children's stories, as evidenced in Where the Wild Things Are and Fantastic Mr. Fox. Where the Wild Things Are was polarizing upon its release, but the film succeeds in that it is not a children's movie, as many expected it to be. Writer Dave Eggers and director/co-writer Spike Jonze took a huge risk in adapting Maurice Sendak's classic into a movie that's more than just Max's adventures with the Wild Things. It's a movie about being a kid, the wonder of a new world and the messy, complicated relationships that make up a family. It's the rawest portrayal of growing up all year, and stands as the archetype for artistic interpretation.
1. Inglourious Basterds: Quentin Tarantino can always be relied on to deliver a fantastically original movie that riffs on genre and the films he grew up loving. But Inglourious Basterds is his most original, balls-to-the-wall film yet. Telling the story of a group of Jewish-American soldiers in Nazi-occupied France, the film has the best cast of the year, with every actor giving a wonderful performance, especially Brad Pitt, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, Melaine Laurent, and, best of all, Christoph Waltz as the sinisterly suave Col. Hans Landa, aka The Jew Hunter. Tarantino's screenplay sparkles with his usual Tarantinoisms, but he proves himself to be one of the best working writer/directors today by not only rewriting history, but also making it believable in the world of his film. It's a risky move, but just like the film's protagonists, there's nothing that it can't pull off.
Agree? Disagree? What were your favorites? Comments please. Soon I will post my favorite scenes of the year.


Andrew said...

I must confess, the only one of your top ten. That's cause I'm poor. That being sayd, 500days was awesome. This is a movie which picks up an idea, sustains it, and completes it. And it does so with great technical skill. [spoiler warning]

On the first of these two areas, content, the author shows most of his idea through the characters of Tom and Summer. He shows the idea of true love to be a possibility. He even wrestles with the question of whether true love is determined, coming down on the affirmative side. Love and determinism are each a great idea, asking a question of the nature of reality. And this author comes down squarely within the great tradition, aligning himself with some of the world's greatest thinkers. The movie is about a specific philosophical idea while remaining in the genre of fiction movie, not drifting into allegory proper or philosophy textbook, or even love story (not that these are bad, but they are not what the author is doing--he is able to keep on track with what he is doing). Also, the author is able to use elements to show his ideas without making the movie about those elements. For instance, the author uses sex as an element, but the movie is not about sex. He is not making a claim for the rightness or wrongness of sex in a given situation. some would say that he is promoting sex outside of marriage by including it the movie. No, that's not what he is doing. Not at all. In this movie, sex is not a "should" element, but an "is" element. It is an "is" like scenery "is". It is background. Some might say Tom's happiness is due to the fact that he just had sex, but this is not the case. Tom is happy because he is in love, and he believes that the sex is the sign of her love for him. He loves her and he believes he loves him. Remember, the movie is not about sex and it is not a love story. It is about love. The author is neither promoting is nor condemning sex.

Andrew said...

On technique, I am most concerned with how the movie was written. I do not concern myself as much with acting (though is was stellar), for the acting can be changed and it still be a good movie. Two specific sequences stand out to me as using excellent technique. First of all, the dance sequence is most excellent. Tom is walking down the street, and a song is playing, and suddenly, everyone is dancing along and the band is playing along. The author excellently shows the inside of Tom's mind--a subjective mindset-- with an external dance sequence. And at the end a bird, an animated bird lands on Tom before flying off. This movie is not a musical. This movie is not a live-action/animation crossover. And yet the author expertly weaves this sequence into the flow of the story to portray his ideas. It a natural entity, an organic sequence in the movie, not an unnatural interpolation into a plotline (as most musicals are these days). On a personal note, it was long after I saw the sequence that I realized the animation and the dance sequence were orphans in the movie--no where else do these things occur. This is not a measure of my dumbness (for I'm not a dumb guy), but a measure of the naturalness of the sequence. It was the most well placed sequence of the movie. The second notable sequence was where Tom describes Summer. Early in the movie, he makes a list of her characteristics that he loves. Later on, he gives the list again, but hating each thing on the list. The same video is played, so the author is communicating that it is not Summer who has changed, but Tom. Tom is shown to be less than reliable, more driven by passions and wild feelings. Summer is shown to be more level-headed and steady. She is the same up until the audience finds out she is engaged. The audience expects her to stay the same. And that's why when she does change, the audience is pulled along with her. The final sequence in the park interprets the events, showing that the author believes in true love and destiny. The audience sees reliable Summer (or at least unchanging Summer) change, and then sees Tom come to agree with her (in the Autumn sequence), who agrees with pre-Summer Tom. By placing the final transformations of Tom and Summer into the place of emphasis and bringing the story back around to the beginning, the author is strengthening his points about love and destiny.

The expectations/reality sequence deserves honorable mention. The device of the scrolling number which showed the audience the day was distracting at times.

All in all, this movie is most excellent in its content and its form. I do disagree with the author on some points, but this is a close reading, not a critical discussion of his ideas. If further thoughts were desired by the readers of this comment, I would be happy to post. If you have not seen this movie, see it. I'm sorry if I spoiled it for you. Be wise about who you take to this movie, for it contains sex and cussing. But it is not about either. It is a good movie and I hope that other film makers will take a lesson and make their movies as good as this one.