And so we come to the end of a decade (note: I was with the pedants on the milennium thing, but are you seriously trying to convince me that 1980 was part of the seventies, 1920 part of the teens, etc.?) Movie-wise, 2009 was, well, it was okay. There wasn’t a huge crop of great films released, and there were a lot of dry patches. On the other hand, the great films, when they did come out, were spectacular- some of the best work in their respective genres and of their filmmakers in a long time. In order to preserve some suspense I’ll be counting in ascending order this time.
10. MOON. A study in isolation that’s part puzzle and part psychological drama. Sam Rockwell has to play against himself and virtually no one else for the whole picture, and pulls it off against an artmospheric 2001-inspired backdrop. The picture is chilling without ever being cold, a strong script executed with style.
9. THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS. Terry Gilliam meditates on the nature of art and the passing of the traditional storyteller in an invitingly surreal and organic-feeling cascade of images. Heath Ledger’s final performance is energetic and expert, and while the story doesnt make the most sense, it works beautifully as a tone poem.
8. PONYO. A very sweet childhood friendship story, surrounded by disaster and the anger of nature. As with most all of MIyazaki’s work it’s a visual symphony, and almost unbearably cute at times. Just plain lovable.
7. STAR TREK. Something that could have gone very, very wrong, this modernized and testosterone-injected reboot of a beloved sci fi franchise instead holds up as a boisterous and fun entertainment. I coulda done with more sense of wonder, and the plot has a few cracks here and there, but some wonderfully enthusiastic acting, a strong visual sense, and an outright witty script make this the kick in the pants the TREK universe needed.
6. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. Some critics argued this radical embellishment of a beloved children’s book was too mopey for its own good, but then, the whole point of the book was that all Wild Rumpuses burn out after a while. Spike Jonze manages to speak to the strange rhythms of childhood imagination, and how happiness and sadness and anger can overpower a young mind who doesn’t know that such moods are a part of life. But it’s not a dry intellectual exercise, instead possessed of a sincerity and organic, intuitive imagination that makes the whole journey quite powerful.
5. THE HURT LOCKER. This may not be the most accurate depicition of the life of a military demolitionist you’ll find, but it definitely feels true and absorbing. Kathryn Bigelow’s expert action thriller, following in the vein of two-fisted postwar stories like THE WAGES OF FEAR and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, navigates around the politics of the Iraq war to present a picture of human compulsion and addiction and how we acclamate ourselves to the most inhuman of environments.
4. UP. Pixar decided to make things hard for themselves by making their latest children’s epic the story of an old man who wants to fulfill his dead wife’s ambition, with a message that you shouldn’t let the trappings of dreams overshadow the true needs they articulate. Fortunately they also had an overenthusiastic boy scout and a talking dog. In an age where children’s entertainments often seem very calculated, UP manages to hold together brilliantly as a story while seeming totally ramshackle. Oh, yeah, and there’s the perfect devastation of the opening sequence, which is basically the filmmakers saying “We know how to make you cry and we’re not afraid to do it.”
3. CORALINE. The old “girl gets what she wished for only to find out it’s not what she wanted at all” fantasy plot is given new life, with a gorgeous look, strong characterization, and a general off-kilter feel. It’s got a lot of personality, and a lot of imagination, and I think better of it now than when I first saw it.
2. FANTASTIC MR. FOX. As you can tell, there were some great children’s movies released last year, some outright masterpieces in fact. Somehow, this is the best. Wes Anderson’s unique adapatation of the Roald Dahl book is just fun, seemingly effortless in its charm despite being meticulously handcrafted from frame to frame. The dialogue sparkles, the visuals are warm and sensuous, the cast is in peak form, and a general good will pervades the enterprise. I’m speaking in generalities because I’m not even sure why this is as good as it is. Like THE WIZARD OF OZ, its parts are terrific, but the whole achieves something that can’t be explained.
1. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. I’m going to go and say this is Quentin Tarantino’s best film in over a decade, and this is coming from someone who loved the Hell out of DEATH PROOF and both volumes of KILL BILL. Those were loads of fun, but this is a true masterwork, one part Spaghetti Western/Nazi kill fest to two parts invocation of the power of narratives. As much carnage as there is, the most intense moments are conversations drawn out uncomfortably as participants seek to subtly leverage power over each other. Christoph Waltz’s ferociously intelligent Col. Landa is one of screendom’s great villains, all too easy to underestimate and deadly when he gets the upper hand. The film both satisfies a certain desire to see history’s monsters get what was coming to them and makes us feel a little ashamed of that, but just how much the film leans to the former or the latter is a matter that could be debated for years. Expertly made and calculated for full impact, this is a reminder that Tarantino actually can do things with the wealth of film references and techniques he’s borrowed over the years.
Runners Up: The Hangover, Sherlock Holmes, Up in the Air
Not Seen Yet: Precious Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, A Serious Man, An Education
Performances that impressed me:
Christoph Waltz, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
Sam Rockwell, MOON
Kevin Spacey, MOON
Anna Kendricks, UP IN THE AIR
Karl Urban, STAR TREK
Tina Fey, PONYO
Woody Harrelson, ZOMBIELAND
Sharlto Copley, DISTRICT 9
Alison Lohman, DRAG ME TO HELL
Jeffrey Dean Morgan, WATCHMEN
The Entire Goddamn Cast, FANTASTIC MR. FOX
Most Underrated Film of the Year:
This Space Reserved
This is kind of embarassing. Just about every film I enjoyed this year was, on some level or another, well received. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE was maybe a bit polarizing, it bears watching in the event that a SUPERMAN RETURNS situation develops, but apart from that, I didn’t find myself going against the tide that much. Obviously a number of films on my list could have done better than they did, but I don’t feel comfortable putting a merely-mildly-received picture up here. So I’m going to wait. I haven’t seen every film released in 2009, and I may eventually find one that got an undeserved bad rep. I’m keeping my eye on some prospects. Will update when I find a deserving entry.
Worst Title of the Year: PRECIOUS BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE. This is what happens when you let lawyers decide movie titles.
Saul Bass Memorial Award for Best Opening Credits Sequence: WATCHMEN. This was actually a fairly good year for the endangered opening credits sequence, and I had a lot of entries to choose from: WOLVERINE, CORALINE, DRAG ME TO HELL, ZOMBIELAND, etc. Ultimately, though, the brilliant condensation of pages worth of key backstory into a simple musical montage is something that even people who disliked the WATCHMEN movie thought it did well.
Speaking of which:
Sweet Home Alabama Award for Song We Never Need to Hear in a Movie Ever Again Ever Goddamn It: “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen (includes all covers.) Cohen is a great songwriter. He has written other songs. Where the Hell is “Suzanne”, people?