The Best Films of 2009

December 29, 2009

* A quick note to say that not being a paid staff critic means not seeing all contenders, especially those that decided to open in 12 theaters nationwide despite the hype. “The Road” didn’t come to any of 50 theaters within an hour radius, nor did “The Hurt Locker.” I also have not yet seen: “Sherlock Holmes,” “Avatar,” “Nine,” “The Young Victoria,” “The Messenger,” “Precious” and a few other possible contenders. If in January or February after catching them on DVD or at my dollar theater I feel they would have significantly altered my list, I’ll make a postscript post!  Now, here we go.

10)  Up

Pixar is great at making visually stunning animated films that use the best and most innovative technologies. Yet they are also  great at instilling the stories they tell with these flashy tools with real humor, intelligence and heart. The first 10 minutes of “Up” is arguably the most emotional and heartbreaking sequence of the year– I doubt kids were able to get the depth of that opening scene, that one was just for the adults. As powerful as that scene was, luckily the Pixar gang breaks things up after that and settle in for laughs, thrills and zaniness. The angry dog with the malfunctioning voice box is worth the price of admission alone, and the sub-plot dealing with a Howard Hughes-like hero turned villain is just icing on the animated cake. Last year I had to throw “Bolt,” on the list, this year the animated winner is “Up.”

9)  Watchmen
This one holds up for repeated viewings; the time I saw it way back in March on the big screen had dulled a bit in my brain, but a recent spin of the DVD was a quick reminder of the testosterone-fueled manic mayhem artistry of Zach Snyder. Snyder’s never shooting for an Oscar– as fun as “300” was it wasn’t really a “great” film in the glorious sense, but it is still fun these few years later and worth a view if you missed it. It proved he could adapt a graphic novel and maintain the feel of the substance in a new format, he does that on a much larger scale here. “Watchmen” was and is the greatest graphic novel of all time, cracking “Time” magazines list of best 20th century novels and worthy of any college reading list in lit class. Alan Moore also penned it to be un-filmable and un-adaptable and balked at the idea of anyone trying to do so; as such his name is nowhere to be found in the credits of the film. His work stands on it’s own and this film doesn’t top that, but neither does it destroy it either. This is one of the few adaptations that neither disgraces its source material, tries to one-up or re-format it, or makes it more palatable. This is a film that works best for  fans of the comic, and it doesn’t insult them. You can enjoy this without having read the book, but it’s so much better as a companion piece, one that steps into the epic story and brings the characters and situations to life. There isn’t time for everything and the ending is different, but we know why this one works better on the big screen and that one worked better in print. It’s just a thrill to see Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan and the rest living and breathing in the cinema and retelling this dark, cynical and unflinching tale of what could be if it were possible for “heroes” to live among us and what the true cost of peace might be in this present world. Every actor does a great job of embodying their character, there are not blatant missteps in that area in the slightest. The music wraps it all together in a bold way, the action is visceral and the attention to detail is at least in the same neighborhood as the original graphic novel: a really fun, flashy film.

8)  Where the Wild Things Are

This was the year to be a movie-going twenty-something indie-geek. Why? For numerous reasons, but just look at the work our generations beloved writers got at the Cineplex– Dave Eggers was the driving force for this screenplay and another one higher on the list (you’ll see soon enough); Nick Hornby wrote another great film a little higher on the list. The director of this one? Spike Jonze. The soundtrack is done by Karen O and friends (“the kids”). These kind of names were everywhere this year if you noticed. Anyway, this one adapts a children’s book that is close to the heart of most Gen X and Gen Y kids that was full of great pics and a handful of words. Jonze and Eggers bring it to life with sheer beauty and creativity, yet maintain the threat and under-current of childhood aggression. The voice acting is superb, the use of real suits rather than CGI is awesome, the whole thing plays wonderfully surreal and enveloping.

7)  Inglorious Basterds

There are times I really want to hate Quentin Tarantino’s films. He’s so full of himself. He’s pretentious, self-aggrandizing, and guilty of lapses in judgment. Yet he’s also capable of great, great film-making: Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, Death Proof and now this. I’m glad he seems to not do commentary tracks, because I couldn’t bear to hear him evaluate his own work, but if I don’t have to hear him and I can just appreciate the work at face-value, I’m always entertained. “Inglorious Basterds” is a big, violent, stylistic piece of near meta-fiction and it doesn’t have a dull moment in it. It’s pulpy, funny, scary, and it pulls emotional strings like a puppet master but it’s also over-the-top, ethically questionable and it loves itself. It builds to a fantastic conclusion that gives the audience such a burst of pay-off even though we quickly remind ourselves that “it didn’t really happen that way! What’s up with this?” Oh, but Quentin wanted to make us wish it had ended that way with him being the one supplying it to us. It’s probably his best work since “Pulp Fiction.”

6)  Funny People

Judd Apatow’s name gets slapped on most comedies that come out these days, but he’s usually just a producer or the guy signing checks for his buddies to make their films. The only ones he’s been fully involved with as writer, director and producer are “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” and this one. They all are laugh-out-loud funny movies that can be watched a zillion times without losing appeal and they all work in surprising warmth and sentimentality for their characters of perpetual adolescents, lazy stoners, commitment-dodging dorks and funny people. “Funny People” is Apatow’s best work yet— it’s also his most serious. At times it feels like 3 movies in one: the main story of George Simmons, stand-up comedian turned star of critically ravaged money-machine earning films finding out he has a rare blood cancer and only has an 8 percent chance of living much longer; the story of Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) a new stand up comic who becomes Simmon’s assistant and writer and his roommates trying to make it in comedy; and the story of Simmon’s “one that got away” (played by Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife– the couples children play the children in the movie). The first hour and a half and the last fifteen minutes are beautiful– funny, dark, emotional. This is the “ugly side” of comedy and what a life in the field often entails and the varied reasons that propel people into the field in the first place. It pokes fun at Sandler in a way, we all know he’s taken a critical beating in almost every role he’s ever portrayed– in “Funny People” you see such ridiculous fake movie clips from Simmons filmography— his head on a baby’s body in “Re-Do,” or as a “Mer Man” in a movie of the same name (really not that far from “Little Nicky” or the “Water Boy” in premise).  Adam Sandler gives a truly great performance in this movie– you get to see the wit, charm and silliness that made audiences love him in critical hate-fests like “The Wedding Singer,” “Happy Gilmore” and “50 First Dates” (and I stand by all three of those as being good movies), the crudity and blue humor of his stand-up, the music appreciation of his albums and the dark, angry, sad, dramatic character traits he used in his critically appreciated turn in “Punch Drunk Love.” The story of his illness and how he deals with it out of the public eye, his journey to making as much peace with that as he can and then finding out he is better and not knowing what to do next is the heart of this movie. The Rogen, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman scenes are truly funny and keep the laughs in place to balance things out, but the ex-girlfriend and kids 40-minute sequence goes on for about 15 minutes too long and throws the pacing off. It’s disruptive, a bit; it makes sense in retrospect why it is needed, to get to that last fifteen minutes of pay-off and not-quite-resolution we have to take that journey in some way, but it lingers too long and perhaps could have been arrived at in a more fulfilling way. That’s enough griping, though, because the things that work in this film really work and more than make up for any possible over-length. Is this the first major-studio “Meta-Comedy?” If so, it’s a good one.

5)  It’s Complicated

It seems like that as soon as the hype for this film emerged and people began praising Nancy Meyers for making intelligent films for grown women, every male talk show host and newscaster had to make comments like “is it weird that I want to see this too?” (Here’s looking at you Letterman and Lester Holts). First, there’s a difference between “chick flicks” and “excellent movies written and directed by women featuring female characters that aren’t clichés.” “Chick Flick” is a term for churned-out, re-treaded romantic comedies or crying-movies that women will watch ad infinitum, dragging along their significant others; they don’t care that the plot is recycled and the emotional reactions are forced and insipid, they just want a feel-good love story or a feel-sad cry story. And that’s fine, the same terminology can be applied gender-crossing genres like “slasher films,” “shoot-em’ups,” “family comedies” and the ever-increasing “bro-mance.” Nothing wrong with paying for a particular thing and getting what you paid for without over-thinking it. But what Nancy Meyers has done here, like she did in the excellent “Something’s Gotta Give” in 2003, is produce a film that features grown women in real ways, but also a film featuring an excellent cast from top to bottom– Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski and the rest of the entire cast deliver hilarious performances in a truly fun and entertaining film. Heck, the guys get as much screen time even though Jane (Streep) is the main protagonist. What I notice more in Meyer’s films than gender is money— all of these people seem to be doing very well for themselves, living in nice houses, driving nice cars and working flexible enough schedules to not only find themselves in these predicaments but to make them funny. I get the feeling that a movie about a woman falling for her ex-husband and having an affair with him when he’s married to a young woman as well as potentially finding herself courting another newly divorced middle-aged man would be a lot less light and funny if they were all broke and working crappy jobs. Anyway, it’s very funny and Krasinski is on a roll this year with this, “Away We Go,” and the “Office.” Baldwin and Martin are hysterical together and here’s hoping the proposed joint-hosting of the Oscars by them will really happen (speaking of joints, the pot sequence featuring Martin, Baldwin and Streep is pretty hilarious).

4)  Up in the Air

There are two types of great actors. One type disappears into their role so much so that you forget who you are watching. They become who they portray down to every look and every expression; their voices change, their appearance changes, you can totally forget who you are watching if you don’t remind yourself. Daniel Day Lewis and Johnny Depp are that kind of an actor. Then there are great actors who are so recognizable and consistent that you couldn’t possibly forget who they are. They don’t drastically alter their voice or appearance, and you always know it’s them up on the screen yet they’re such a joy to watch and so capable of giving wonderful performances that it doesn’t matter. George Clooney is that type of actor. He is also great at being likable and entertaining even when he is playing people who shouldn’t be that likable and whose moral compass is a bit suspect. “Up in the Air” could be his finest performance (but “Michael Clayton” is so close it’s too tough to call). In “Up in the Air” Clooney plays a man whose job it is to fly around the world, landing in a city where a company is firing employees and go in to do the firing for the managers who are uneasy of doing the dirty work themselves. He’s also a motivational speaker whose main message is aimed at encouraging people not to be too attached to either things or other people, and he spends as much of his time as possible living in a way to do just that himself. This is a good film, a timely film, a very 2009 kind of movie. The director, Jason Reitman, also directed “Juno,” “Thank You For Smoking,” and some “Office” and “SNL” episodes, all of which are sort of evident in this film. There’s no happy ending and no real resolution, so if you like things in nice little packages you might want to step away. But if you like intelligent films that tell their story on their own terms regardless of what the audience thinks they want and ones that do it in such a way that you wouldn’t have changed a thing after all when you think it over, this is your movie.

3)  (500) Days of Summer
Yeah, it is a bit of an indie hipster comedy. It’s post-emo generation film (first wave emo, folks, we‘re talking “The Smiths“); it’s a romantic comedy that really isn’t all that romantic when you re-think it. It’s about the idea of love and how bad people want it without really knowing what they want or caring who they want it with. It’s a realistic dating movie, one that certainly doesn’t go where such a thing usually goes and is thoroughly entertaining even so. It’s funny; it’s creative. The style of the plot takes a few dozen days over the course of a relationship between Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt– yes, the kid from “3rd Rock From the Sun” all grown-up) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel in a friggin’ charming performance that is crush-worthy), chops them up and throws them at the audience in random order. So we see happy scenes, romantic scenes, funny scenes, silly scenes, angry scenes, depressing scenes, and like in any relationship any one of these scenes may be from any point in the relationship, the beginning or the end. The soundtrack is great, and this is certainly the kind of movie in which the soundtrack is part of the cast and integral to the story. A really great, really true sort of movie that is too honest to be a real date movie, but one that will make a lasting impact more than any of those typical flicks do.

2)  An Education

This is such an excellent movie. It’s now up for a Golden Globe, so at least it’s retained memory for some critics– I was worried this one would slip right under the radars and be forgotten since it came out a little earlier than most-award show contenders. Carey Mulligan got a lot of hype over her role as Jenny in this early 1960s London-set coming-of-age story, with folks declaring her a new “Audrey Hepburn.” Watch this and you’ll see why, and the comparisons are valid. She shines in this story about a high school girl planning on college when she falls for an older man who woos her with trips to Paris and nights on the town, causing her to rethink her plans. Peter Sarsgaard is that older man, and a character seducing a girl 20 years his junior, a senior in High school no less, should be too creepy to like but Sarsgaard plays David well enough to where when you almost do like him through much of the film. David is charming Jenny’s parents as much as he is her, and he’s a con artist of the highest caliber in this story. The screenplay is based on a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber and it’s adapted to the screen by Nick Hornby. Hornby usually hones in on Gen X slacker male characters and throws their neurosis’s onto the pages of his novels or on the screen with his adaptations with flair– “About a Boy,” “High Fidelity,” “Fever Pitch“– so as much as I love his work I never would have guessed he could so greatly  feature a smart, strong young woman as a protagonist, but he does and the script works excellently. The director, Lone Scherfig, is from Denmark and she hasn’t really done anything American so I’ve never seen her other work but going on how beautifully this one is shot I’ll be sure to check her future projects out. The most pleasantly surprising 2 hours I spent at the movies this year, totally sneaking up on me to make my list– from the 3 dollar theatre to number 2 on my list of the best 2009 pictures!

1 )  Away We Go

This one’s it. I really, really loved this movie. Apparently it’s a love-it or hate-it pick because I’ve read every opinion imaginable about this one and I honestly can’t see how you could come down on the “hate it” side of the aisle. It’s so much fun, it’s such a warm, funny, clever, unique, realistic, relatable, entertaining flick! Dave Eggers, who I mentioned way back on number 8 with “Where the Wild Things Are” pulled double duty on fantastic films this year, writing two truly great screenplays–this one‘s his best; Sam Mendes takes a more optimistic turn at the camera with a great directorial job (not that he didn’t do a good job with “Revolutionary Road,” “Road to Perdition” or “American Beauty,” just that judging by those films I wouldn’t think he would give anything close to light-hearted a shot). John Kransinski of “The Office” gives a funny and great performance– I’m beginning to think he’s the 21st century John Cusack, someone we average yet possibly quirky guys can relate to when we see him on the screen. Krasinski is the lead, playing Burt Farlander. Maya Rudolph is the other lead, playing Burt’s girlfriend “Verona,” and when the couple decide to hit the road in an attempt to find a home and something to do with their lives as they approach the end of their twenties, they run into every possible kind of acquaintance and character actor, all played to perfection by various joys-to-watch like Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeff Daniels and Jim Gaffigan. The best screenplay of the year in a movie that works with all emotions and never dumbs itself down.


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