Part 2 - 2009's Best Movies


- Disclaimer
- 6 2009 movies I missed (and can’t wait to get my hands on)
- 3 2009 movies I hated
- And my top 10 for the year

Ok, so I’m definitely not a film critic. But I watch movies that don’t get huge releases along with those that do, and I try to think critically about them. Also I just like movies a lot. And this was a great year for film in a way that I don’t really think it was for music. So without further ado…

2009’s best movies I haven’t seen:

A Serious Man
[Update: This is a pretty good movie. Super weird, and probably my least favorite by the Coens, but Kyle's blog had some interesting reflections on it that I hope I'll get around to linking to.]
The Road
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
[A pretty interesting twist on the romantic comedy genre, but only because the DFW stories were first. The film parrots the dialogues word for word, and that's a good thing, but it loses touch when it tries to resolve everything at the end. Still it's a better film than Star Trek.]
35 Shots of Rum
Sherlock Holmes

[Update: Not bad, but it's just an action movie. Guy Ritchie could have made something special if he'd stuck with the mystery genre; but if there's no way for a viewer to unravel the mystery till extra information is revealed at the climax, it doesn't really qualify. A better example of the genre is Christopher Nolan's The Prestige.]
District 9
[Update: I loved this movie. I'd probably put it at #7, just behind the Hurt Locker, but I'm not going to mess with the formatting.]

2009’s worst movies I have seen:

3) The Men Who Stare at Goats
This movie is never really entertaining, but for the first 30 minutes the audience at least gets to wonder favorably how the movie is going to become interesting. It just never does. The only remotely funny element is the brash idiocy with which the ‘psychics’ approach their task, but we never see a satisfying resolution of this. Snoo-zers.

2) Extract
The only bigger clusterfuck than what happens to Jason Bateman’s food-coloring factory is the movie itself. I mean, holy shit; the jokes have nothing to do with the plot, the characters are obnoxious, tacked-on stereotypes, and it’s just plain not funny ever.

1) Ninja Assassin
I feel less inclined to explain why it’s bad than to explain why in hell I went to see it. It wasn’t my idea (I swear) but I can’t pretend anyone made me do it. Really though, it’s unspeakably bad; the story relies on cinematic sadism, subtle but definitely present racism, and pretty blatant sexism. And the one-liners passed off as dialog are worse than what videogames get away with.

2009’s top 10 movies:

NOTE: There shouldn’t be any spoilers in my explanations (except #2 and #4).

10) Star Trek
Serious ‘trekkies’ are the only people who don’t seem to agree that this movie is exactly what it needed to be. Yes, captain Kirk is exactly like Han Solo, and the whole movie feels more like Star Wars than Star Trek. That's why normal people like us can bear to watch it.

9) In the Loop
Sort of like the British “Office,” if it were set in the Prime Minister's foreign policy office. In fact, almost exactly like that. Raucously funny with well-developed characters and a good-enough plot that never stands in the way of the jokes.

8) An Education
The year’s best romantic-comedy-drama. It’s about a high school girl who falls for an older man because he takes her to concerts and art auctions. The direction feels heavy-handed at times, but only because the performances are so good. Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay. (!)

7) Up
This may be the most emotionally serious Pixar film, at least for the first 30 minutes or so. The rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to the introduction, but it’s great entertainment throughout, and not just for kids. Extra points for all the old man jokes.

6) The Hurt Locker
Probably the best war movie since Saving Private Ryan (maybe since apocalypse now). It handles the Middle-East conflict with such maturity, neither condemning nor glorifying it. It’s paced like an action flick, but the drama never comes easily and the emotions are never cheap. It’s not a casual movie but it’s damn good.

5) Where the Wild Things Are
The amazing thing about Spike Jonze’s 100 minute adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s 40 page picture-book is how little he actually invented to expand the story. All but a very few characters and plot-devices draw directly from the themes of juvenile disobedience, domestic angst, and dubious parenting already present in the book. The film’s only weak elements are those that seem farthest from the book (the whole part about KW and the mute owls definitely should have been cut). The director’s respect for the source material (my favorite picture-book as a kid) is wholly transparent.

4) Avatar
Call it a guilty pleasure but I really liked this movie. I mostly agree with the criticisms leveled at it, (that it’s an expensive lights-show hiding a weak and predictable story, or that it’s a cross between Fern Gully and Pocahontas that gets mired in polemic). But nonetheless I sincerely enjoyed the three-hour experience of watching things play out 10 minutes after I guessed they would happen. Seriously. I’m sure the visual effects had a lot to do with that, but I’m not usually suckered in by 3D jungles and space-ships unless there’s a decent story being told. Avatar gets enough things right to be worth seeing. And except for a few crippling issues in plot development I think it could have been pretty great.

The film does a few things really well: most of the storytelling happens visually, so even though the dialog is sparse and second-rate, the protagonists and their relationships are all surprisingly dynamic and well-developed. The story’s pacing is painstaking and virtuosic. And while Sam Worthington definitely won’t win best-actor, the performances are all at least decent.

Avatar’s only serious weakness is story, and the big problem there lies with the antagonists: Stephen Lang is plenty fearsome and Giovanni Ribisi is ignorant-and-in-charge, but neither of them is remotely convincing as a human being. "Unobtainum" needs a new name that isn’t a joke ; and a scene where it’s being mined or any explanation of what it’s actually used for would do wonders for the film’s moral impact. The conflict becomes so detached from its impetus that there’s no moral ambiguity at all. So what we get is a naïve polemic, so awkwardly earnest and conspicuously unfair that the epic story is scaled-down to jab American imperialism in the ribs. The only polarizing issue Avatar manages to raise is whether or not it sucks.

So it’s kind of like a less nuanced Dances with Wolves. But I still really liked it.

3) Fantastic Mr. Fox
Another superb adaptation of a children’s book--Wes Anderson gives Dahl’s weird fable the Royal Tenenbaums treatment. Mr. Fox is cast as the former thief looking for one last big score, struggling to love his wife and son, to consider the welfare of his neighbors, and generally to do anything selfless. It’s stylistic and lyrical and hilarious. It occasionally reminds us of Wallace and Grommet, but that’s not so bad. Anyone who uses the word "clustercuss" is all right in my book. See it if you haven’t.

2) Inglourious Basterds
I am not a Tarantino fan. I hate Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill and Reservoir Dogs. But I loved this movie. It’s pitch-perfect in representing German, French, and American WWII culture, and it has the year’s best social commentary in any medium. Tarantino skewers the Allies for their unforgiving wrath, and the Germans for all the obvious stuff. But he doesn’t stop there: the movie puts a stake in the heart of the whole culture of violence behind his grindhouse style of filmmaking. It’s a revenge thriller that identifies the revenge-impulse as a cinematic phenomenon. So even as the film’s conclusion lets cinema win out over history in a fire fueled by celluloid, it pauses to recognize that all this vengeance hasn’t solved anything. The characters are hilarious, at once lovable and loathsome, and they’re believable too (or believable enough). Since the film centers on themes of human dignity and the inhumanity of revenge that’s pretty darn important.

1) The Brothers Bloom
The writer/director of 2005’s Brick is now the writer/director of the best con man movie since The Sting (1973). Adrian Brody and Mark Ruffalo play Bloom and Stephen and Rachel Weisz plays the eccentric love-interest. The characters are all well-drawn and unique. The plot is more complicated than you’ll realize the first time you watch it, and the dialog is supremely clever. Most importantly, though, it’s just really, really entertaining. The film deftly evokes a broad range of varying emotions, in turns hilarious, thrilling, sad, and uplifting. And it never forces those feelings on the audience; it earns them. Ultimately it’s a spectacularly fun way to spend two hours, and it means something. What more could we ask for?

Well there’s that. Bring on the Twilight jokes…

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