Well, here we are after another long year. And what a year it’s been. I’m not going to indulge in a lot of retrospective ‘this is what I did all year’ BS, because if people wanted those kind of updates they could just follow me on twitter and get it all as it happens.
Instead, I’d like to offer you something a little more substantial. Anyone who knows me knows that my really hobby, the thing I probably dump the most time into outside of work and sleep, is movies. And 2009 was surprisingly a pretty good year for movies, all told. So today I’m going to present my top 10 and change for the year, the things that really set my world aflame and I think are most definitely worth checking out.
This list isn’t really in any sort of order based on quality or anything. They’re all good, and picking a favorite is next to impossible. And I’ll admit that I’ve hardly seen every major, notable release for 2009. If those films are truly amazing, there will likely be an edit to this list once I get a hold of them. Or I’ll roll them into the Top 2010 films. Depends on how good a year 2010 is.
Anyway, enough of that. We’re off. Feel free to share your opinions in the comments. And if you have your list of movies, feel free to offer me a link. The always radiant Elizabeth Ditty has her own list here, and it’s a good one (though I still grumble about Star Trek). I’d love to hear what you felt belonged on here and didn’t make it, or what you thought of the movies listed here. At the end of the day, it’s all opinion anyway, and so long as we’re watching movies, we’re bound to be better people on the other side.
Easy Virtue is probably the first movie I knew would be on this list, way back in the beginning of the year when I had heard enough of Elizabeth Ditty talking about it and went to find it for myself. And man, I am so glad that I did, because Easy Virtue belongs on this list. It grabbed its position and held on for dear life during what was a pretty awesome year.
What is Easy Virtue? It is the story of a young man and a young girl who fall in love and get married. But the boy is British and the girl American, and when the boy brings the girl home to his traditional British family all hell breaks loose.
The best part of Easy Virtue is that it plays on two levels. There are many of the Americans-versus-Brits comedy of errors sorts of scenes, and those are truly well and good, but the film is also an exaggerated parody of those films. The characters each represent the archetypes of this subgenre, but together it becomes a farce about both sides, and a film about the journey that the characters take as living, breathing people as a result of what is at heart a trivial clash of personality.
What really set my heart on Easy Virtue was the amazing performance by Colin Firth as the burnt-out war veteran patriarch of the family, a man drifting through life and trying to hold onto a shadow of his former self. I single him out because I had forgotten about Colin Firth before that movie, and was soundly reminded of his brilliance. But he’s not the only great performance in the movie. The film received a pretty small, limited release in the US, but I would recommend it to anybody without hesitation.
Sam Raimi is good at one thing, and that thing is slapstick horror. The kind of horror that’s kind of dumb, full of cliche and genre love, but is at times the best physical comedy outside of WB cartoons and other times some of the most genuinely tense stuff (usually despite his efforts). Spiderman be damned, this is what he’s good at. But you know that, because you’ve seen Evil Dead 2, right? Right.
Drag Me to Hell isn’t quite the masterpiece that Evil Dead 2 is, but it’s got its own charms. The story of a young girl who falls under a gypsy curse, it is your typical morality tale of the genre told through the ridiculous veil of Raimi at the top of his game. Unlike the Evil Dead series, this movie isn’t constrained by no budget, and it shows. This is sometimes good and sometimes bad, but it feels much more like a slick, modern Hollywood horror film at the start, with people you kind of know from other things playing humdrum, upper-middle class young people.
That’s when the shit goes down. And boy, does it ever. Raimi is a master of timing, and the comic and the horrific is sometimes only a matter of a few seconds one way or another. Raimi is perfect when it comes to that and his talents are on full display here. Not only that, but the film plays fast and loose enough with the narrative that what on the surface seems to be a typical horror film story can be interpreted much deeper. I’ve heard more than one compelling argument that the movie is actually about anorexia. It’s that kind of ambiguity that sets Drag Me to Hell apart, as a film that’s greater than Raimi’s typical, superficially entertain fare, to something worthy of inclusion on this list.
This is kind of an oddball choice, I know. I’m hardly a green, organic-buying, tree-hugging hippy about anything, much less my choice in food. That said, I continue to watch the food documentaries, things like Super Size Me, King Corn, Fast Food Nation, and the ilk. For what reason, I don’t know. Masochism, perhaps. Those movies always make me long for a cheeseburger after all that shock photography and grassroots, heavy-handed moralizing. And that’s what I expected to get out of Food, Inc.
But Food, Inc. is not that kind of movie. Instead, it’s a movie of facts. Sure, there’s a scene in a chicken farm that’s not exactly easy to watch, but at the same time there is a scene of organic chicken farmers doing things the old fashioned way and it’s just as disgusting, though in a different way.
And that’s really what I found so powerful about Food. Inc. It’s certainly a documentary about the evils of big, corporate farming and what it means for our society. But it presents it at all levels, from the scares of contaminated meat to the death of the farmer to the organic movement and its broad selling out to big food companies to the patenting of seeds and the damage from corn subsidies. As someone who lives in an agriculture state, these are things I’ve grown up seeing play out in the local news, and the movie presents a truth that is multifaceted and has no easy answer. Even the knee-jerk, down with the big guy response is shown to be a too simple-minded response.
In short, this is a documentary doing what it’s supposed to. It has an agenda, but it lays out the facts and lets you make the next step if you feel the need for action. Instead of propaganda, it presents stories and information, and the conclusions drawn aren’t laid out in a moralistic way, just in a blunt reality sort of fashion that I found refreshing for this subset of docs. In short, it’s the kind of film that can change your mind. And I find that a powerful thing, worthy of acknowledgment.
There was a lot of great sci-fi in 2009. But among all the big, tent pole entries with huge budgets and a heavy reliance on special effects was Moon, standing tall among the giants. Moon isn’t an ambitious film. It is the tale of a lone astronaut and an AI at the end of a multi-year stay on a moon mining facility. It in a small, intimate tale, with claustrophobic sets and two actors interacting for the entirety of its run time.
If this sounds suspiciously like 2001: A Space Odyssey, then I’m glad you were paying attention. Moon takes a lot of things from Kubrick’s epic, but it is a much smaller film with an entry level to match. While 2001 is nearly indecipherable to anyone going in, the tale Moon tells is immediate and human and relate-able. It is one man trying to remain sane alone, the discovery that perhaps the reality he’s accepted is not what it seems, and the prices to be paid for that truth.
The film takes quite a number of twists and turns, but it’s never as difficult to follow as something like Primer or even Pi, indie sci-fi movies that used confusion as a part of the plot. The movie is clear and concise, as cold as the vacuum of space in presenting an intimate tale, and it’s the juxtaposition of the grandness of the setting and the microcosm that the story inhabits that makes the film something really special.
The Brothers Bloom was a movie that I went into thinking I wasn’t going to like. In fact, I was determined that it was going to be a huge disappointment. The trailer looked fun in a campy, frolicking sort of way (the way the better Oceans movies rode on at times) but I’ve never exactly been overflowing with love for Adrian Brody.
Thankfully, I was convinced to give it a shot on DVD after completely overshooting it in the theaters. Which was an amazing move, as The Brothers Bloom is a truly fantastic film. Part heist film and part crime comedy, the movie breezes in with a single mindedness and sense of fun that truly sets it apart. The story of two con men, one who wants out and one who wants to live the dream brings them into contact with Rachel Weisz, who plays an idealistic heiress wrapped up in all of the intrigue of the titular Bloom brothers’ last big score.
The Brothers Bloom is a lot of things, but above all else it is incisive, with a sense of genre that embraces conventions even as it knocks them down and sends them up. The characters are both archetypes, playing against the norm, and living and breathing people with the kind of heightened reality of films like Amelie or the works of Wes Anderson. I was worried that Rian Johnson’s herculean effort in making Brick (a brilliant film in its own right) wouldn’t be repeated, but The Brothers Bloom is a testament to a director who can play the conventions of cinema as vehicle to explore new, interesting ground.
All that, and it’s still hilarious.
District 9 is an epic. And I mean that in the old-fashioned, huge-scope, this film is going to take you on a journey way that is so rarely utilized these days. This film isn’t just big (though it does become very big) but it is exhausting and powerful and vast in presenting a story that tells a singular message, a message of humanity writ in the metaphor of aliens. Like all the greatest sci-fi tales, the other is simply a mirror to show us ourselves.
The story of a bureaucratic effort to relocate aliens who landed and settled on earth is widely known to be an extended metaphor for apartheid. But in reality, it’s much more than that. An examination of the use of force and the predilection to remove the weak in order to assuage the will of the strong (“You mean Avatar didn’t invent that story?” No, Jimmy, tis an ancient tale.). A look at the officious, well-meaning face of evil on a level not seen since Brazil. It’s the US storming into Iraq, it’s 1984, it is about prejudice and apathy and the evils of both. It’s a big scope, and the film handles it all with heart and brains to match.
The film isn’t without its faults. I feel the finale goes a little too big and action-heavy for its own good, but the first half is so pitch-perfect that it’s hard to hold a misstep or two against it. A film that had no business going as big as it did really set the bar high for spectacle sci-fi, and it’s amazing what a scrappy movie with a relatively small budget and no-name actors can pull off.
Ponyo is a difficult film to write about. Either you already know the majesty of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, or you don’t, and trying to tell someone why they’re awesome is hard. If you don’t know who he is, go see his work right now.Spirited Away is his best, Kiki’s Delivery Service or Laputa: Castle in the Sky are easier entry-level films. Ponyo is his latest movie and it too joins the ranks of instant animated masterpieces.
A retelling of the Little Mermaid story with a decidedly Japanese bent, Ponyo is the story of a young boy, Sousuke, who meets a young goldfish named Ponyo. Ponyo is a princess of the Ocean, but develops a sense of young love for Sousuke and thus uses her magic to turn herself into a girl. Unfortunately, her actions bring about an imbalance in nature that threatens to destroy the world.
Ponyo is a film of wonder, animated in a beautiful style, with watercolor-esque scenes and a landscape of windswept island chains and huge seas a la The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. But it’s also an emotional tale about childhood and dawning responsibility and the awakening of greater emotions. Miyazaki handles it all wonderfully, with an eye for the careful juxtaposition between the mundane human world Sousuke inhabits and the alien awe-inspiring unreality of the magical undersea kingdom and inhabitants.
It is hard not to gush about Miyazaki, but the elderly director is still perhaps the greatest single force in animation. Ponyo will go down with the rest of his work as not only some of the best animated movies of all time, but of legitimate, amazing movies against the wider field of all of cinema.
Quentin Tarantino’s long-in-coming World War II epic comes pretty quickly on the heels of Death Proof, a masterpiece that was swallowed up by the general indifference to the joy of Grindhouse by the masses. And with one bold move Tarantino regains his lost ground with interest, creating what is quite possibly his greatest movie, and certainly one of his boldest.
Inglourious Basterds doesn’t pull any punches. It is the sweet blending of the spaghetti western, the war film, and the revenge flick. There is intrigue, there is violence, and there are genuine laughs and cheers to be mined from the material. Tarantino’s fairytale take on WWII is the stuff that cinema history is made out of, the notes of exploitation film and arthouse romantic drama working in much the same way that the low humor and high aspirations of Shakespeare provided enduring entertainment to all walks of life.
That’s not to say the film is without the Tarantino quirks. The chapter framing of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill returns. The violence isn’t nearly as cartoony as Kill Bill, instead relying more heavily on the slow buildup and quick, brutal release of 70s American cinema and the Spaghetti Western. It’s powerful, heady stuff. But the payoff is incredibly, with a sense of exhilaration the likes of which is rarely felt on screen.
Once upon a time, Zombie Comedies as a genre began and ended with Shaun of the Dead. And it was good. But then, lo and behold, there came upon the world Zombieland, and the gauntlet was thrown down, and the two titans strove for the title of greatest. And though the outcome of that battle is lost to the ages, many talk of the power of both combatants to this day.
Okay, enough waxing poetic. You can’t talk about Zombieland without mentioning Shaun of the Dead, which really helped in reigniting zombie fervor and is a fantastic film in its own right. Let me come right out and say it–I feel Zombieland is the superior of the two films. Shaun of the Dead is much more innovative, but Zombieland is much more dedicated to its themes and goes further with them.
You know the drill by now. Zombie outbreak. Band of survivors from various walks of life meet, try to survive together, and all learn something about being human. In between, there are clever scenes of practicality, excess, and the wild dream of living in a world without constraints. This film is devoted to that framework set down so long ago by Romero, but it is also a smart, fast-paced comedy about American life.
As much as Shaun of the Dead is about the UK, Zombieland is about the America of 2009, about the rednecks and the hopeful and the nerdy and the broken, people who live on pop culture and a heated dislike for people who are not like them. They are violent, volatile, emotional, and more than a little lost. The zombie apocalypse is more a catalyst for bringing people together than anything else, a tableaux for the convergence of all these lives missing something vital. For survivors, none of the cast is particularly well adjusted. But who is, these days? Zombieland is us, and we are Zombieland, as the best films of the genre should be.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is not my favorite Wes Anderson movie (that title rests firmly upon The Royal Tenenbaums) but it is, in my opinion, the best of them. Wes Anderson has always had a lyrical, hand-crafted feel to his movies. The sets look like doll houses, the characters like something out of a story. It is a natural extension, then, to remove the meat of physical actors from the equation and simply use some of the most painstakingly high-quality stop motion around (I’d say of the year, but Coraline was also an amazing achievement).
The storybook quality is even more reminiscent here, with everything made miniature or constructed to be the whimsical playground of the fantastic models used. Of course, the voice work is superb, with Wes Anderson’s typical cast of characters being lead by the commanding tones of George Clooney. But the two come together in a lyrical, impressionistic way that brings it all home. Clooney’s Mr. Fox is a suave poseur of a criminal, aspiring to the upper class, but the snarling animal nature that takes over from time to time punctuates the inherent absurdity of the hopes and dreams of the animals, and the animation that accompanies it is charming and hilarious.
The general whimsy of Anderson is on full force here, going full speed into the stratosphere of his personal style. I feel like Fantastic Mr. Fox is the first time he’s really been free to just throw it all out there as perfectly as he sees it in his head, and it’s an impressive, spellbinding vision.
Nicholas Cage is the kind of actor that will raise a man’s blood pressure. He goes from great movies to shit on celluloid seemingly at random, veering to and fro with the kind of chaos one might expect from a natural disaster. Which makes watching one of his movies a little like playing Russian Roulette with your afternoon. Which is why Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is probably the best movie Nicholas Cage will ever make.
Port of Call is not a great film. In fact, it tries very hard to be a bad film. It is a bad film in the way that only a great director or a complete fuck-up can make. The narrative veers wildly from Cop-Who-Doesn’t-Play-By-The-Rules drama to police procedural to a drug film (both pro and con) to a man-on-the-edge film to a film about race relations to a revenge flick to outright comedy. The story of a cop with good intentions, chronic pain, and a habit for loose women, hard drugs, and big gambling, Port of Call is the kind of train wreck that gets off on being wild and raucous, even when on screen it’s being muted and reflective. I assure you, that’s only for decoration. No morals are to be found here.
And Cage takes to it like a fish to water. One minute he is the seedy, slimy Nicholas Cage from most of his best obscure roles, next he’s tripping out wildly seeing (or imagining? it’s never made clear) reptiles as hard as Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing, and then he’s waving around a massive magnum and spouting one liners like the days when he flirted with being an action star. Even his performance goes from manic to static between cuts, his delivery slurring one minute and sharp the next. It’s entrancing, and the world around it is as ridiculous and uneven as the actor and director, wheeling around and around the lip of ruin but never quite falling in.
The poster I’ve included with this is an unused one from early in the production. It perfectly captures the tone of the movie, and is one of the best scenes of the movie, where our hero pulls a gun on two innocent, well-meaning old women. But apparently the MPAA feels that a picture of someone pointing a gun at another person, even fictionally, is too much for the public at large to handle. Which is why I use it, despite its obvious watermarks. This film is simply too much for the public at large to handle.