A year in film.
Doesn’t seem like it’s been that long since I saw my first film of the year (“Taken” way back in January), but it’s gone by quickly for me. Simply put, it has been an extraordinary year, much superior to 2008 in total number of “A” grades that I gave out this year (as well as a few A+’s, if I did that sort of thing)–24, as compared to 16 from last year. And what quality is in the output!
Here, I have collected a total of 30 brilliant films, and the layout is thus: 15 of these will be my runners-up, those films that got A’s from me (and a few A-’s, as well). Five more will be included as sort of the Special Jury Prize films, those that almost made it into the top ten, but not quite. Then, the ten best themselves, a group of diverse members. It’s been a terrific year, yes, but I will tell you that possibly nothing will dethrone my number one choice.
The Brothers Bloom. Rian Johnson’s follow-up to her Sundance phenomenon “Brick” was a terrifically twisty and turny gem of a caper movie. The writing was like some deft balancing act between comedy and drama, quirkiness and searing intensity. The ending is icing on the cake.
A Christmas Carol. Although Robert Zemeckis has not bested his own “The Polar Express,” he easily toppled the self-indulgence of “Beowulf” with this stunning and quite creepy adaptation of Dickens’s tale, still the finest Christmas story (besides the obvious one, of course). Jim Carrey was a force of nature.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. A surprise hit from September that disappeared from the box office mighty quick and that deals with overconsumption of product, this absolutely delightful and somewhat overlooked animated gem was gorgeous and delicious from one end to the other. Rent this one on BluRay.
Coraline. Already the third animated film on this list, Henry Selick’s first film in nearly a decade was a twisted delight that has deservedly gained traction for an Oscar nomination. Shades of Selick’s own “The Nightmare Before Christmas” are obvious, but there are hints of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” as well.
Drag Me to Hell. Sam Raimi’s glorious return to the types of films he made before the “Spider-Man” films (such as the grotesque masterwork “Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn”), the film is pure summer fun all the way through. By far one of the scariest, as well, due to Lorna Raver’s freaky old lady.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The best of the Potter series takes it in some dark directions. Harry must compete with not only the growing threat of Lord Voldemort but also with the ever-raging teen hormones. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is the best of the year (or very close to it), and the visual effects work is on par with anything from 2009. Perhaps the greatest strength is its humanity and, of course, magic.
Julie & Julia. Nora Ephron’s is one of the best screenplays of the year in how it basically chronicles two lives’ experiences with food in just over two hours. Meryl Streep and Amy Adams are pretty much perfect as two food lovers whose lives are intertwined in more ways than one.
Knowing. Alex Proyas’ film is one of the examples of this year’s excellent batch of sci-fi films. Nicolas Cage has been plagued with less-than-ambitious roles the past few years, but I found his performance here to be complex and almost wearied. The finale is, of course, mildly vague, but played just right. Exquisite.
My Sister’s Keeper. Nick Cassavetes has a gift for taking inherently sappy material and giving them a realistic edge, and he does it beautifully with this adaptation of Jodi Picoult’s bestselling novel. The premise is the stuff of a tearjerker, but the tears are rightfully jerked this time. The manipulation is evident, but you’d never know it.
Sherlock Holmes. Guy Ritchie is a filmmaker I have no history with, but I want to have a history now. This slightly modernized and wholly bettered version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original character creates a kinetic action picture with stale formula. Robert Downey Jr. is nothing short of magnificent in the title role, and Hans Zimmer’s score is the best of the year.
The Soloist. Joe Wright makes a true comeback with this uplifting true story after the dull, overrated “Atonement,” returning to the modestly enchanting feel of his earlier 2005 Jane Austen adaptation, “Pride & Prejudice.” Has two fantastic lead performances by Robert Downey Jr. and an astounding Jamie Foxx.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I know that I’ll get flak for this, but I loved Michael Bay’s original “Transformers,” and this insanely awesome sequel was even better. Who cares if the characters are cardboard, the dialogue is mostly terrible, and the script is taken from every other action movie there is? That’s part of the fun.
2012. Neither “Avatar” nor “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” can claim to have bigger and more expansive visual effects work than Roland Emmerich’s newest bit of worldwide destruction. Featuring every disaster movie in the book, it goes on for nearly three hours—and that’s because Emmerich’s dealing with the very end of the earth.
Zombieland. This, with “Drag Me to Hell,” accounts for the most devilish amount of fun the horror genre had in 2009. Gruesome, bloody, sick, and downright hysterical for 95 glorious minutes. Not to be outdone by his admittedly badly-over-the-top cameo in “2012” weeks later, Woody Harrelson turns in a dazzlingly funny performance in what is the most fun zombie movie since “Shaun of the Dead.”
The Special Jury Prize Winners:
15. Watchmen. Zack Snyder brought the superhero genre to new heights with this visually spectacular experience. The film divided both audiences and critics, but I was on the right side of the fence, drawn to the visceral escapism of Frank Miller’s original graphic novel. The film itself had the look, feel, and tone of a graphic novel, right down the visual sensibility, and in the middle of it all, Billy Crudup brilliantly envisioned Dr. Manhattan (in one of the year’s best performances) as a wounded human soul stuck inside a godlike, disconnected figure.
14. Up. Pixar’s films are always treasures to behold, and even though “Up” is not their finest hour, it still holds the title of their most uniquely-plotted venture. The opening act is the most moving cinematic montage of 2009, bar none, period. What follows broaches every genre in the book, from screwball comedy to action/adventure to human drama, and director Pete Docter handles all of them beautifully. The film ends on a final note of dramatic transcendence nearly unmatched by an animated film these past few years.
13. The Informant! Director Steven Soderbergh combines the sly, dark wit of his Danny Ocean trilogy with the intrigue of Michael Mann’s “The Insider” (they would make a great double feature, and not just because of the similar titles). Matt Damon gives his finest performance as a whistleblower for corn-producing company, who may or may not be lying about everything he says. The key is the screenplay by Jason Bourne trilogy alum Scott Z. Burns that never misses a beat. By the end there is some sort of catharsis, giving us one of the most unexpectedly funny movies of 2009.
12. Paranormal Activity. The year’s most simplistic title gives way for the decade’s most unnerving experimental film. Shot entirely with camcorders and a budget of merely $11,000, the film ratchets up an amount of tension worth six or seven of Shyamalan’s films. The premise is as simplistic as its title, and just as deceptive: a couple believes that unseen forces have penetrated the walls of their home and they set up a camcorder to prove it. What results digs into your skin, stays there, and decides to move in for a few weeks. It is a film to lose sleep over, but what it makes you think is even more surprising.
11. Inglourious Basterds. Quentin Tarantino’s electric “Pulp Fiction” defined nearly a decade of pop culture and remains one of the five best movies ever made, but “Inglourious Basterds” will probably not have that type of crossover. What it amounts to is sick fun: both a brilliantly realized war picture, and a cinematic love letter to cinema, signed and dated by Tarantino himself. His love for film drips off the screen, evident in the chilling opening twenty minutes, as a hair-raising conversation between bloodthirsty Nazi Col. Hans Landa and a farmer leads to tragedy, shaping the future of a young girl to long-settling revenge. The rest of it is like a novel you can’t stop reading.
The Cream of the Crop:
10. An Education
directed by Lone Scherfig
“An Education” represents a terrific balancing act between drama and comedy, but ultimately it is the characteristic of romance that instills the sense of thrill in the viewer’s mind. It is nothing short of enthralling to watch 24-year-old Carey Mulligan become our heroine Jenny, a naively wise 16-year-old soul in over her head in a relationship with a 30-something eligible bachelor. The film is inherently manipulative, as it tries to make us believe that Jenny’s actions are okay. The stinker is: it works, and we sympathize with her plight, while acknowledging that it’s wrong. As I said, it’s all about the balancing act.
9. (500) Days of Summer
directed by Marc Webb
As radiantly romantic as “An Education” was, however, it had nothing on “(500) Days of Summer,” which as one critic said, looks you in the eye and tells you the truth. This is one fantastic motion picture romance, inventively told out of chronological order, and why not? If it was told in chronological order, then it would just be your garden variety romance, told simply and conventionally. Instead, director Marc Webb spits in the face of convention, daring to go in different directions near the end; this is certainly not a film in which you can tell what will happen before it happens. And thank goodness for that.
8. Fantastic Mr. Fox
directed by Wes Anderson
While the entire world went gaga (for a good reason) over most of the mainstream animated films of 2009, such as “Up” and “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” both quality films that show up in this list, one way or another, here was an under-the-radar charmer that had every bit the dazzle of Pixar’s efforts and more. Wes Anderson’s astounding, hilarious gem of animation was critically acclaimed to the maximum yet made a sad $19 million at the box office. What Anderson accomplished was fresh, character-centric and nothing short of breathtaking, encompassing everything family-oriented cinema is about in 87 glorious minutes. And no one went.
7. Star Trek
directed by J.J. Abrams
I said it eight months ago, and I’ll say it again: J.J. Abrams did the near-impossible by taking a corny and by-all-accounts dead franchise, enlivened it with massive and impressive special effects work, and then added a killer sense of humor to make one of the most unexpectedly charming motion pictures of the year. It’s also a science-fiction classic-in-the-making, if not quite the best genre effort of the year, then really stinkin’ close. The villain was fantastic in the capable hands of Eric Bana, the chemistry between Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as Kirk and Spock was unmatched by any two actors this year, and the sense of fun was almost suffocating.
directed by James Cameron
Just recently, James Cameron’s second greatest science fiction experience (behind “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” of course) topped a billion dollars worldwide, making it his second film to do so after the Film That Everyone Knows About and Has Seen, “Titanic.” The reason: “Avatar” is almost at the level of insanity for how groundbreaking everything about it is. From the photorealistic special effects work that could potentially change the way blockbusters are made to the imaginative storyline that recalls “Star Wars” in the way it makes old material feel new again, it is one of the strongest science-fiction efforts in years.
5. The Hurt Locker
directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Arguably the finest war film since Tom Hanks was sent on a mission to save Private Ryan, “The Hurt Locker” is up there with the likes of “The Bourne Ultimatum” (one of 2007’s very best films) as one of the most visceral pieces of manly cinema I’ve ever seen–yet, it’s directed with keen observation by female filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow. Don’t count me as sexist, because I’m certainly not saying that a woman couldn’t possibly make this sort of film, but it is blatantly obvious that Bigelow is the female Paul Greengrass. This is the first film of hers that I’ve seen, and it won’t be the last. Jeremy Renner owns the lead role of Will James, a titan in the field of manually diffusing bombs in the midst of the ongoing war in Iraq. Gratefully, Bigelow excludes any sort of politics from the proceedings, making it the most kinetic character-driven thrill rides in years. Michael Mann had a leg up with the slightly overhyped “Public Enemies” (a film that I like but certainly don’t love), but Bigelow perfected that style in “The Hurt Locker,” which is a fine technical achievement.
4. District 9
directed by Neill Blomkamp
As remarkable of achievements as the showier “Avatar” and “Star Trek” were, however, nothing is likely to change my opinion that the year’s cream-of-the-crop in sci-fi filmmaking was Neill Blomkamp’s debut masterpiece “District 9.” Some argue that the endings to all three films are somewhat repetitive, but for me, the ending to “District 9” is the most involving, both in its action elements and in the ideas its presents. This is a thoughtful and hard-hitting motion picture, both a rousing summer blockbuster and an allegorical drama about how aliens might be treated in these specific surroundings if they invaded. And the performance by Sharlto Copley is still the strongest by a male lead this year.
3. Where the Wild Things Are
directed by Spike Jonze
“Where the Wild Things Are” is a miracle of a motion picture, almost melancholic in tone, which might have confused and ultimately turned off a lot of people in the process. The film was not what you’d call a box-office success, but for me, it’s the strongest family film of the decade and easily the most affecting. Emotionally, the film hits dead-on what it is like to be an eight-year-old, dealing with the psychology of a lonely child with astute grace and surprising darkness. Technically, the film is a marvel, with the best cinematography of the year by Lance Acord, one of the best musical scores by master Carter Burwell with Karen O and the Kids, and seamless visual effects.
2. Up in the Air
directed by Jason Reitman
It’s true that I’m a sucker for Jason Reitman films (“Thank You For Smoking” and “Juno” both made my top ten lists for each year), but “Up in the Air” is a bit of a different venue for Reitman, plunging into some surprisingly dark moments for what could be called a screwball tragicomedy. George Clooney is at his absolute best, even over his performance in “Michael Clayton,” as a corporate downsizer who basically lives on the road, right down to commenting on how all the flight-related things we hate are the things he loves. Equally impressive and even more heartbreaking is the sharp-as-a-tack screenplay, which is the best of the year. Reitman has crafted his masterpiece.
directed by Lee Daniels
No film even comes close this year. Sitting down in my theater seat, I had no idea the journey I was about to take. All I had to go on was the powerhouse of a trailer and glistening reviews from Sundance and Toronto. I did have my doubts, predicting that perhaps the film would be an overrated flop, much like “Atonement” two years before. The film was being made out to be a critical darling, but it wasn’t long before the negative reviews started coming out, and I had even more doubts. Perhaps there is nothing to this buzz, I thought even as I went in. I was wrong. I’m sorry.
“Precious” represents what filmmaking is about and can be. We can say all we want that the trailers make it look like a Tyler Perry movie, or that the film’s depiction of sexual abuse within a lower-class, African-American family in Harlem is bordering on racist, but the sad truth is, the film was co-written by the very person who went through the experience up on the screen. The film sugarcoats absolutely nothing, from the physical abuse that Clareece “Precious” Jones endures to the scenes when she breaks down and cries; all of it seems organic and real, never false. The film is destined for a shutout at the Oscars to the leading frontrunners “The Hurt Locker” and “Up in the Air,” but I believe the big award is deserved by “Precious.”
It is a miracle movie in its blatant unconventionality and purely unsentimental view of a young life gone terribly awry and then possibly fixed for the slightly better. With its frightening, monstrous, and ultimately vulnerable performance by Mo’Nique, the film transforms into one of the most difficult moviegoing experiences of my lifetime—and one of the best. It is the finest directorial effort by an American director since the Coens tackled “No Country for Old Men,” or it would be, if it didn’t leave that film in the dust. I agree with Entertainment Weekly’s claim that, at the end of this blistering masterpiece, we witness the birth of a soul. I would add to that a damaged, imperfect soul, still to be mended from years of heartbreak and turmoil. And that birth is joyous to behold.