Saturday, February 13, 2010

Best Movies of 2009

Most years when I sit down to writing my year end top ten list, I feel compelled to defend that year’s movies. All too often I hear people saying, “This was a terrible year in movies,” or, “They just don’t make them as good any more.” And yet, people keep going to the movies.

Generally, the reason people don’t think the movies being made aren’t any good is because they aren’t watching good movies. They’re spending their money on Hollywood genre pictures that usually are special effects extravaganzas that neglect story for action. The good material is usually found in the dramas and independent fare.

A strange thing happened this year. I didn’t hear anyone tell me that movies in general aren’t any good. Oh, certainly they decried this one or that one, but I didn’t hear nearly as many complaints. That is except from myself. 2009 wasn’t a great year in film in my opinion. It is the only year that had no films represented on my Best of the Decade list, although it wouldn’t have bothered me to substitute “Kill Bill with “Inglourious Basterds”.

Interestingly enough, it was the dramas and indies that seemed to be dragging down the quality for the year. Those Hollywood big budget genre pictures seemed to bear much stronger quality this year, although possibly not in proportion to quantity. There were all the normal blockbuster disappointments; but in some cases, there were genre surprises from out of left field. Who knew South Africa had it in them?

Regardless of overall quality, it was another year of movies filled with greats and stinkers. Here are my favorites (followed by a short look at the worst).

Top Ten

1. Inglourious Basterds

You may not like the violence when it comes. The language might bother you. The long passages of dialogue between brief scenes of action might not be what you’re used to. The historical inaccuracies might rub you the wrong way. But it cannot be denied that Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” is a work of pure cinema. He doesn’t merely employ the tools and techniques of cinema with a mastery of style beyond most all of his contemporaries. He uses all of cinema history as his palate.

Pulling references from European cinema, Tarantino casts an entirely American movie with them. With Brad Pitt leading a large cast of supporting characters, “Inglourious Basterds” is more than just a World War II revenge picture; it’s the ultimate fantasy of how we all would’ve liked those Nazi devils pay for what they did. It ‘s also thrilling, funny, highly stylized, and magical in a way that all great cinema is, and somehow it is one of the most original movies ever made.

2. Avatar

Apart from what “Avatar” may have done to transform the industry into a 3D-based format (although it hasn’t gone beyond my notice that Warner Bros. has now ordered that “Clash of the Titans” and both “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows” films to be pushed out in digital 3D), this film has been a powerful return to form for director James Cameron. “Avatar” revisits many of the themes that made Cameron an A-list director in the 80s and early 90s; man vs. his own technological progress, nature vs. corporate greed. These are the very themes that spurned his films “The Terminator”, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”, “Aliens”, and “The Abyss”.

Ironically, he has once again attained a new standard in technological achievement in this very same film that is so critical of such progress. The alien world he creates here is one of the most beautiful ever to be conjured onto the screen, and even the human world seems alien to the audience with its oversized vehicles of mass destruction. Perhaps some have been able to walk away and ridicule some of the dialogue in retrospect, but there is a power that is undeniable as the film is being experienced that reminds one that film can make for glorious entertainment.

3. Drag Me To Hell

Yet another film this year that is absolutely in love with its own cinematic values. Director Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man”) returns to his horror roots with this ultimate tribute to everything that makes horror fun. As far as fun goes, watching this film was by far the most fun I had in the cinema this year. When I watched a second time after it was released on Bluray, it was the most fun I had in my own living room this year. I made my wife watch it (she doesn’t do horror), and she says it’s the most fun she’s had watching a movie this year.

Apart from being fun “Drag Me To Hell” is genuinely scary. With a PG-13 rating, Raimi proves that gore, shock and awe do not a horror movie make. You don’t need all that. What great horror thrives off of is mood, setting, and more so than anything else, style. Raimi’s camera work here is the best in his career. Best of all, he stays true to his title, the sign of a true artist.

4. The Hurt Locker

The nature of war has changed drastically since Hollywood first started making movies based on humanity’s favorite pastime. It has taken the industry some time to adjust to what modern warfare has become. There have been some good war movies made out of modern conflicts, but with Iraq it seemed only documentaries could do justice depicting what our soldiers were going through over there. “The Hurt Locker” has changed that.

As fictional war films go, “The Hurt Locker” might not seem like much a war film. There isn’t much combat, and yet it captures the heart of what the conflict in Iraq is all about for the American soldier. What I found to be the bravest thing about this movie was the fact that although it depicted a more paranoid and unstable soldier than has been traditionally featured as a war hero; this movie’s protagonist doesn’t condemn the war. He thrives off of it, not because he enjoys it, but because he is a soldier, and this is what he does.

5. District 9

“District 9” does what all great sci-fi does; it combines special effects, action, an original plot and social commentary into a package where you can learn something about being part of the human race while still being highly entertained. It is perhaps the best sci-fi flick to come out of the past decade. It takes place in the not-too-distant future and speaks to the immediate problems of our society today.

Beyond the fact that “District 9” gets the philosophy of sci-fi correct, its details send it into another level of success. The fact that this story about segregation is based in the South African city of Johannesburg is more fitting than anything Hollywood might have come up with. It deals with a world wide problem, not merely an American one. The hero, or anti-hero of the story, Wikus, represents the overall standards of humanity much more appropriately than some Hollywood Adonis, or even a Bruce Willis type of everyman. Wikus really is an everyman, not an idealized version of one. He’s a wimp. He’s selfish. He’s flawed in all the ways that make humans capable of the overall problems of intolerance represented by the way the aliens are treated in the film.

6. Goodbye Solo

No director today is doing as much to capture the true spirit of America as Ramin Burhani. Apple pie and the Forth of July or other forms of flag waving don’t represent Burhani’s American spirit. Burhani’s America is one that exists inside the people who work just to get by every day. It is found in their hearts, their good deeds and bad. It is a spirit that doesn’t rise to incredible heights, but rather small ones, culminating in just a little hope for something more.

“Goodbye Solo”, Burhani’s third film after “Man Push Cart” and “Chop Shop”, follows a cab driver who develops a relationship with a fare once the old man confesses to him that he plans on taking his own life. Through their unlikely relationship the cabbie finds new inspiration in his own life. That makes the movie sound like sappy melodrama, but Burhani never emphasizes his melodrama. It is his characters that soar.

7. Paranormal Activity

Along with being another ultra-low budget horror flick made on digital video and breaking box office records for the amount of money made versus money spent, “Paranormal Activity” shares its notion of what is scary with its decade old predecessor “The Blair Witch Project”. In an age when horror directors increasingly think the more you reveal about your subject, the better; it is so refreshing to see a horror film that understands that the less you see and understand, the more frightening the experience will be. And this film is frightening.

Both this movie and “Blair Witch” worked on the notion of what frightened people as children, the notion that the idea of the creature under the bed was frightening because without seeing the creature, you could never know for sure. “Paranormal Activity”, however, takes the horror one step further by turning that childhood fear into an adult one. It makes it obvious that the creature could not be imagined, yet still gets away with never showing it. This movie will keep you up at night.

8. Knowing

I think only Roger Ebert and maybe a dozen other critics actually saw this film, even though all the rest did write reviews on it. I don’t know what Nicholas Cage movie those others were complaining about, but “Knowing” is another one of the best sci-fi flicks to come out of the past decade. Never have I seen an apocalypse film done with such clarity of purpose. No, the characters don’t really know what’s going on, even once they have figured out what the numbers found in a school time capsule mean. The audience is running off the belief that there is a solution to the problem presented by the numbers. But in the end, everything is exactly how it should be despite the fact that it is nothing like it is expected.

Director Alex Proyas returns to his very dark roots with this picture; and through an amazing mastery of images and sound design, he creates one of the most frightening thrillers I’ve seen in a while. This is a powerful movie, whose power seems to have gone over the heads of many who’ve seen it. I can only imagine that is because of their own expectations of the project, since Proyas’s vision is so clear and succinctly captured in this wonderful film.

9. Trucker

Once again another pretty face, this time Michelle Monaghan (“Mission: Impossible III”), proves that she is more than just her external assets. “Trucker” is an intense personal drama about a long haul trucker who must suddenly become mother to the child she abandoned years before. She’s still just a kid herself in most ways. As a mother she feels a child’s frustration in dealing with her own child, but knows she must act as an adult. She goes through an amazing transformation from beginning to end in what is ultimately a beautiful movie about our ability to adapt to situations we never thought we could.

This film joins the ranks of the great independent Mid Western melodramas that have surfaced over the past decade in titles like “Tully”, “Shotgun Stories”, “All the Real Girls”, and “Come Early Morning”. Stories that, while being composed of melodrama, present a simple life filled with struggles that aren’t monumental in the scope of action but involve great emotional hurdles to overcome. “Trucker” is an American classic.

10. Invictus

I don’t think it is coincidence that the first year our country has had its first ever black president that so many films concerning our human challenge of confronting change and intolerance should surface. Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” is probably the most direct film in referencing our own socio-political change. It tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s presidency of South Africa just a few years after his release from a 27-year jail sentence under the oppressive rule of apartheid. Mandela recognized the sport of rugby as a uniting point for his citizens, and so Eastwood uses the model of a sports flick to get his message of tolerance across by focusing the subject of his film on the unprecedented run the South African rugby team made on the 1995 World Cup.

Eastwood’s MO as a fairly basic storyteller had many critics accusing this film of being a “typical sports flick”, but looking at the sheer scope of the production, it has some of the epic feel of the two World War II movies he did a couple years back. Nor can I remember the last sports flick that contained such an important and human message. “Invictus” is far from typical.

Special Jury Prize. Film festivals usually give out a special jury prize to a film they feel is just as deserving of honor as the one that wins the top prize. Here is my special jury prize for 2009.


In the minimalist tradition of classic sci-fi comes “Moon” a nearly single character drama that sees Sam Rockwell as the solo operator of a moon mining base. At the end of his three-year tour of duty he begins to see strange things. Not sure whether it’s the long period of isolation, hallucination, or something more sinister, he begins to investigate and discovers he may not be alone.

It sounds very much like other space-oriented films, but “Moon” does an exceptional job of brushing up against the typical plot points and then steering clear of them. I very much enjoyed how the elements that at first seemed sinister to the pathetic astronaut turn out to be in his favor, while the real problems come from another direction entirely. Some may feel the “twist” is revealed too early in the running time, but the movie isn’t about the twist so much as it is about how Rockwell deals with it. “Moon” is a solid entry into the space canon.

Five Documentaries

1. Begging Naked

I had the honor of screening the amazing and heart-rending documentary “Begging Naked” at Roger Ebert’s Eleventh Annual Film Festival. It tells the story of New York artist Elise Hill, and is one of those examples of a documentarian capturing her subject at one of the most monumental and vulnerable points in her life. At the beginning of the film Elise is living in an attic apartment across from the Port Authority (in a building I’m sure I looked for an apartment once myself) making her living by dancing in a nearby strip club. By the end she’s a street urchin, never knowing where she might next spend a night. Through it all she continues to paint, and produces a body of work that is remarkable to say the least. At the time I saw the film, it still had no distributor; but in November it was selected by The Library of Congress to be included in their permanent collection. Find out more at

2. The Cove

“The Cove” is the documentary that’s getting talked about this year, because what it depicts is horrific. It is about a Japanese fishing community that practices the wholesale slaughter of dolphins. It is not just the powerful subject matter that makes this film great, but the way in which the subject is presented. It plays like a good horror movie. The filmmakers talk about what is happening to the dolphins. They explain why. They explain what is being done about it and what isn’t. They build up a mystique and tension about what is happening in the cove. And then they spring images that are worse than you imagined. What is happening to these dolphins is every bit as wrong as murder, and these filmmakers make you believe that, even if you don’t want to. “The Cove” is the frontrunner to win Best Documentary at this year’s Academy Awards.

3. Trouble the Water

With the 5th year anniversary of Katrina fast approaching there is a general sense that it happened a long time ago. Not so for the residents of New Orleans’ 9th Ward. “Trouble the Water” is a documentary that will bring you back to that disaster and place you right in the middle of it, as if it were yesterday. This is because Kimberly Rivers Roberts, a resident of the 9th Ward who rode the storm out and miraculously survived, shot most of the film footage. As horrific as the storm itself was, it is the bureaucracy that followed for the surviving residents that makes the strongest statement about how the government mishandled Katrina, forgetting that there were people at the center of all of this. “Trouble the Water” goes a long way to exemplify how racism and classism fueled the Katrina tragedy, and yet in the end it sends a message of hope and survival of the American spirit.

4. Anvil: The Story of Anvil

Anvil’s story is an amazing one indeed. Poised to break into the annals of rock superstardom in the early 80s during a tour with some of that decade’s biggest heavy metal acts, Anvil somehow missed the bus. Yet almost thirty years later, they’re still trying to achieve their dreams of becoming one of the biggest heavy metal acts the world has seen. Part real-life “Spinal Tap” and part VH1’s “Behind the Music”, “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” is one of the best rock documentaries I’ve seen, showing all the trials and failures of a band that really should have succeeded and yet continues to try when all would say they are past their prime. If the rock business were measured by pure heart, Anvil would be the greatest rock band ever.

5. Scott Walker: 30th Century Man

I didn’t know much about this surprisingly iconic musician before I saw this documentary that topped several other understated-artist-on-the-verge-of-insanity docs I saw this year. What impressed me so much about “Scott Walker: 30th Century Man” was how willing this longtime recluse was to let the filmmakers in on his artistic process. There is a good deal of background missing on Walker during his recluse years, but that’s made up for with some very candid interviews with the one time crooner and wonderful in studio footage of the creation of his 2006 album “The Drift”. So many music documentaries are concerned with the artist’s opinions of their most famous work, which is rarely something the artist had any control over. This film really explores what goes into the creation of Walker’s most personal work.

Five Animated films

1. Up

In a year when animation had a bit of a resurgence in popularity, “Up” was an early entry that set a high standard for the rest of the competition. In my opinion, it was a standard that wasn’t matched by any of the other fine examples this animation year had to offer. Its story of an old man who uses helium balloons to lift his house out of the ever growing city to search for a paradise he dreamed of in his youth, is preceded by one of the most touching love stories to grace the silver screen. Then the old man’s adventure itself is filled with all the intelligent humor, thrills, and poignancy that have become the brilliance we’ve come to expect from every Pixar production.

2. Sita Sings the Blues

I may be stretching it a bit to consider “Sita Sings the Blues” as a 2009 release. Although it was released upon the world via the Internet long before the 2009 release year began, it did not go into heavy festival rotation until 09, a year which also saw its DVD release. Considering few knew about the movie, I’m going with my personal cinematic screening year on this one. That’s also because I need to talk about it more. “Sita Sings the Blues” is simply magical. That’s such an overused phrase when describing movies, but this animated retelling of the Indian epic poem of “The Ramayana” uses multiple animation styles, various settings, and the beautiful recordings of Annette Hanshaw to tell one of the most unique break-up stories you’ll ever see. The film is funny, the artwork is beautiful, and the music no less than enchanting. “Sita Sings the Blues” is more than one could ever expect from a “cartoon”.

3. Coraline

I'm glad the fact that “Coraline” was released so early in 2009 did not result in it missing out on an Academy Award nomination for Animated Feature. “Coraline” is a beautiful, original, and frightening vision of stop motion animation, and until “Avatar” the best argument for the digital 3D format yet. Directed by long-time Tim Burton collaborator Henry Selick, “Coraline tells the story of a young girl who discovers another universe through a door in an old house. At first everything seems better in this alternate universe, but soon she learns that things really weren’t so bad in her original situation. The story is filled with wonderful characters and a strong message about family.

4. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

As I’ve stated on several occasions, this was the funniest movie I saw last year. Forget “The Hangover”, the wacky and brilliant antics of the characters in “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” will have you cradling your stomach muscles. Far from a faithful adaptation of the beloved children’s book, “Meatballs” is hilarious due to its use of its voice talent’s oddball sense of humor. Bill Hader’s lead character plays like something from his Saturday Night Live repertoire. Even after several viewings (because it’s impossible not to see a children’s movie hundreds of times when you have an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old), I still find new things to make me laugh. I call this movie “candied delight.”

5. Fantastic Mr. Fox

In probably the most unique entry into children’s animation this year, we get “Fantastic Mr. Fox”. Amazingly this film is exactly what you’d expect from oddball filmmaker Wes Anderson and his voice star George Clooney, and yet it’s still somehow a family movie and a definite representation (however altered) of the classic children’s book by Roald Dahl. Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach infuse Dahl’s story about a Fox making life difficult for three mega farmers into one of their dysfunctional family dramadies. Yet somehow that fits for these personified woodland characters. The voice talent cast reads like a list of living legends, and they bring life to these creatures that Disney might turn into sappy “life is beautiful” pandering. Instead we get a family film with an actual family at its core, a family that loves each other despite their flaws.

Here are 10 more movies that weren’t good enough to make the list, but I still enjoyed very much.

Adventureland had the brains to realize a stoner movie needs to be laid back, intelligent and funny.

The couple portrayed by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph in Sam Mendes’s Away We Go is one of the best representations of romantic love I’ve seen on screen.

Even were I not a Giants fan, I would be able to see that Big Fan looks at fanaticism as only a fanatic can. Patton Oswalt’s character is ever true to himself and the Giants.

Rian Johnson’s follow up to “Brick”, The Brothers Bloom, did not in anyway resemble his brilliant debut, yet it too was a masterful genre piece that saw life a little brighter than its predecessor.

Steven Soderbergh quietly released the stunning portrait of a call girl, The Girlfriend Experience, near the beginning of the summer blockbuster season.

He returned with yet another film, The Informant!, only a few months later, proving the number of films this man puts out does not adversely affect their quality. Matt Damon was one of the bigger snubs of this awards season for not landing a nomination for his wonderful performance here as a corporate informant whose penchant for lies lands him in as much hot water as the people he’s snitching about.

The Limits of Control offered audiences the quiet take on the thriller from indie director Jim Jarmusch.

On the opposite end of the spectrum was J.J. Abrams brilliantly action-laden reboot of the Star Trek franchise.

Last spring’s political thriller State of Play, starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams, was an overlooked gem.

Korean director Chan-wook Park’s take on the vampire mythos, Thirst, offered a look at Hollywood’s current favorite monster and remembers first and foremost that vampires are creatures of sexuality and human lust.

The Worst of ‘09

Bride Wars. Some wars aren’t worth fighting.
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Hasn’t Matthew McConaughey any shame?
G.I. Joe: the Rise of Cobra. This one needed to cook a little more.
The Informers. Has anyone informed them how bad this movie is?
Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. Some movies hold no surprises.
Mutant Chronicles. Was another zombie apocalypse movie really necessary?
The Uninvited. I’m waiting for the new FOX series “When Good Movies Make Terrible Remakes”.
Wolverine. Don’t all those people who stole this movie feel silly? Not as silly as the ones who paid for it.
Year One. One year Hollywood will realize that pre-history just isn’t funny.

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