Sunday, March 7, 2010

He Said: THE BEST OF 2009

For as long as I can remember, I've spoken of how bad 2009 was for the movies. In many ways, that's true -- far too many mediocre films, outright disappointments, and some of the worst films of the last decade bowed in 2009, and it was enough to drive a critic crazy. Perhaps this list was delayed so long because I wondered if the year even deserved such a celebratory retrospective.

But whether or not the year deserves it, the movies deserve it. This year I have 20 titles to represent the year's best, and they are all worthy of special mention. A few others, pushed just to the outside, deserve mention as well. They are, in alphabetical order: Amreeka, Big Fan, Coco Before Chanel, Coraline, The Cove, Food, Inc., Funny People, The Hangover, Hunger, Sugar, Tyson, and Whip It.

So I guess the year deserved it after all.

Here are the Best Films of 2009...

Continue reading after the jump...

20. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER
       A last-minute inclusion, because this film plays like clever perfection in subsequent viewings. A film that is both relationship-savvy and film-savvy, which can be a wondrous certainly is in this case.

      This film is off its rocker. Madcap brilliant story, hammer-it-home style, a beautifully uncomfortable tonal mess, and Seth Rogen in one of the year's great psychotic screen performances. I wrote in my original review that the film was like "Scorsese on coke," and that right there is enough for placement on this list.

      A quiet gem from Steven Soderbergh, who is always experimenting with ways to mess with tonal balance and stretch the boundaries of the film, and who finds the perfect pitch in this film, which plays with the audience's perceptions in the same way its protagonist (in an Oscar-worthy bit of performing brilliance by Matt Damon) must play with the perceptions of everyone he comes into contact with.

      Wes Anderson's films have always felt like live-action representations of arch, colorful storybook tales, and here he immerses himself firmly within the genre, crafting an animated film in herky-jerky stop-motion style that is simultaneously the ideal form through which to adapt a Roald Dahl book and the perfect extension to Anderson's signature style. The filmmaker has great winking fun with his PG-rated material, but somehow still retains his thematic obsessions with inner pain, emotional anger, and the family bond that can somehow make everything sane again.

      That a film this beautiful and brilliant could be pushed this far down a list of twenty is, perhaps, a testament that 2009 wasn't so bad after all. Spike Jonze's indie-minded oddity is one of the great films ever made about childhood, in all its joyous, infuriating, intriguing, scary, contradictory splendor.

      Might very well be the most fun anyone could have at the movies in 2009. Its humor is not merely funny, but witty. Its satire is not merely sharp, but incisive. Its violence is not merely bloody, but an over-the-top bath of carnage candy. Great stuff from Woody. More great stuff from Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin. And, of course, Bill F***ing Murray. Zombieland is like a great carnival ride where you're scared you're going to fall off at any second, but you can't wait to line back up when it's over.

      If possible, even more spot-on and hysterical than the ever-brilliant Borat. Sacha Baron Cohen is not just a social critic, not just a comedian, not just a provocateur, but a mad genius who is able to seamlessly blend the three into one shocking, uncomfortable, drop-dead hilarious synthesis. Take that, American culture!

      Do you remember your last summer before college? The summer where you were on the precipice of adulthood yet still fell prey to all the trappings of adolescence? Where you literally had no responsibilities and yet viewed your cookie-cutter emo-troubles as the end-all, be-all of human existence? What a silly, immature time that is, yet it is beautiful in its own way. Adventureland understands that beauty in all its frustrating complexity, and conveys it wit uncommon sweetness and subtlety.

      A gonzo work of genius directed by the cinema's reigning king of Gonzo Genius, Werner Herzog, and featuring Nic Cage's best work in years.

      A vampire picture that could easily suck the life out of every other brooding vampire melodrama out there, and the most delightfully twisted, oddly appealing, vividly spellbinding love story of the year. Park Cahn-wook's unnerving masterwork blends a dissection of religious guilt, an exploration of forbidden passion, and a meditation on the all-encompassing power of desire.

The Top Ten:

      A love letter to the cinema in the key of juicy soap opera. Pedro Almodovar is a genius at twisting tone to fit his unique purposes, and in Broken Embraces tells a story about love and loss where the one constant in the characters' lives is the revealing power of the cinematic image.

9. UP
    Every other critic stole my line, but here it is anyway: Up begins with one of the great emotional sequences in film history. That sequence alone is enough to merit Up's inclusion on this retrospective list of the year's best. If Pete Docter's wondrous journey into the heart sustained that kind of emotional glory for its entire length, it would be a film for the ages. That it can't is not a huge problem, however; the film is a glorious, colorful, beautiful story of an unconventional family on a surrealistic adventure.

    Great science fiction always contains great, lofty ideas, but what makes Moon soar above and beyond traditional sci-fi is its careful attention to humanity. Sure, there are psychic traces of Solaris and 2001 lovingly embedded in the framework of Duncan Jones' stunning directorial debut, but at its heart, Moon is a great human story -- a story of human struggle, a story of human naivete, a story of human weakness, a story of human triumph.

    An absolutely wonderful coming-of-age story about unreal expectations, harsh realities, and the complex dichotomies of feminism. Carey Mulligan's performance is a joyous revelation, and she exudes a fascinating blend of innocence flirting with danger, of intelligence flirting with stupidity, of youth flirting with adulthood.

    The directorial debut of celebrated fashion designer Tom Ford is a sumptuous study of the world's intricate beauty from the eyes of man who wants to die. Yet in the midst of its downbeat tragedy, the film breaks the world down into its individual human elements -- the blink of an eye, the tapping of a foot, the glow of a smile -- and discovers the inimitable force of humanity that can return the color to our world, even when we thought it had forever faded.

    Lukas Moodysson's first English-language film is a layered exploration of how big the world is, and how small. In an age of laptops and iPhones, of instant connectivity and up-to-the-minute updates, people have been given the gift of isolation; we are able, if we choose, to remain entirely connected to the world around us without ever actively stepping into that world. Mammoth dares to explore the implications of the world we live in, and draws some beautifully subtle parallels. We all have needs, wants, and desires -- but the obstacles we confront in order to achieve them depends on our status, our location, and our means. Some of us are rich and some of us are poor, some of us are big and some of us are small, but what the world sometimes forgets is that we are all human. It is that humanity that ties us together, even though the modern world threatens to pry us apart.

    Kathryn Bigelow's walks a tightrope of suspense, but it is not about thrills. It offers spectacular action sequences, but it's not an action film. The Hurt Locker is not a film about war so much as it is about the effects of war. It is not so much about the minutiae of a soldier's unique work as it is the inner workings on the soldier's mind -- the varying ways in which the experience of staring certain death square in the face on a daily basis wears away at the needs and desires of the men and women who carry out this unenviable job. There are bombs and explosions throughout the film, yet the most explosive bomb in the film is the one ticking inside each and every soldier we meet. Wondering when -- and how -- each bomb will detonate is the film's most extraordinarily suspenseful element. One builds up a lot of hurt on the battlefield; some can keep it locked up, and others blow. Bigelow's Oscar-worthy accomplishment is not merely the power of her film's images, but the power of its humanity.

    What happens when the soldiers from Hurt Locker return home? The Messenger offers an incisive, painful look. Oren Moverman's film exemplifies the phrase "hurt locker;" when Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) returns "home" from the Iraq war (though nothing feels like home except the battlefield), he is assigned to serve the rest of his tour as a messenger, one who delivers the "regret to inform" speech to deceased soldiers' next-of-kin. He sports wounds acquired both on and off the battlefield. And the reception Will is given as he delivers every last word of terrible news represents some of the rawest warfare ever put on screen. We don't hear a shot fired in The Messenger, yet we feel the residual shock of warfare like never before. We aren't subjected to shell-shocking explosions and bloody wounds, yet we leave the film with a better understanding of the modern American soldier than any war film ever made.

    Here is the best movie of 2009 that you've never heard of. Put it on yout Netflix queue, go find it at Blockbuster, and prepare to be taken on the wildest ride you've taken in years. Tilda Swinton gives the best performance of the year bar none. How she got overlooked for Oscar is extraordinary, despite the fact that the film is so small. And yet it is so large, so grandiose a tale of a drunken loser and pathological liar who somehow manages to maneuver her way through an international drug lords, all the while "caring for" the kidnapped son of her Mexican neighbor. Julia is simultaneously a hero and a villain, and the brilliance of Erick Zonca's screw-loose epic is that it dares us to ponder the legitimacy of Julia's intentions. Is she brilliant or profoundly lucky? Is she playing these criminal masterminds or skating by with serendipity? Does she know what she's doing, or does she even know what's true? What a joy trying to unravel the mysteries.

    If it were released in the 1950s, it would have told the story of Ryan Bingham -- elegant corporate hitman who lives his life on airplanes, has no formal attachments, and who believes his lifestyle is the hidden secret to human satisfaction -- as a straightforward, sassy comedy. It would have been a popular classic. If it were released in the late '80s or early '90s, the story would have been about Ryan's lifestyle as a front for deep emotional pain, and wax sentimental on how he needs the love of a good woman to cure him. It would have been one of the great romantic comedies of the time period. But in 2009, as told by Jason Reitman with extraordinary human profundity and with a keen sense of the "now," Up in the Air hits the familiar notes of the '50s version and the '90s version, skewers them, and then goes far beyond to reach a shattering, revelatory truth about the modern world. Reitman is now playing with the big boys, and in his second consecutive masterpiece has challenged today's filmmakers to tell stories that simultaneously tap into the heart and the mind, the society and the soul. Up in the Air is funny and sad, heartwarming and tragic. It is a reflection of our world, and challenges society to look into one large mirror. Not many films can do that...only undisputed masterworks.

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