Thursday, January 14, 2010

best films of 2009

Okay, so since this is the time of year that everyone makes "top 10" lists for some strange reason, I thought I'd make one of my own. Now, be advised this only covers films that I have seen to date. Therefore, supposedly good films like The Hurt Locker or Precious are not included as I haven't seen them yet. It is likely that this list would change were some of these films seen. But for now in no particular order, here are what I think are the best films of 2009...

Coraline -- Because it was released early in the year, I worry that this movie will be overshadowed come Oscar time. Yet for me, it was my favorite animated film of the year, and easily the best use of 3D from all the other 3D cartoons this year. Dakota Fanning's voice acting was surprisingly effective, even down to her annoying Michigan accent. The faces were so expressive. Henry Selick is a man who hasn't gotten the credit he deserves over the past ten years. His hand in Nightmare Before Christmas has long been overlooked, and I hope that Coraline finally gets him more recognition. The story of a little girl who discovers another universe where her parents are better but all have button eyes was just creepy enough as well as entrancing. The film nicely adapts Neil Gaiman's book, even if some bits are lost and the Wybie character added. I like the portrayal of Coraline who was not some feminist ideal or a pretty princess, but a REAL girl. Some critics found her bratty or unlikable, but these qualities are what I found most likable about her. She reminded me of girls I know and love. So much so that I was put in the uncomfortable position of wondering whether I was developing amorous feelings for a 14-year-old girl who was also a puppet. The stop-motion is top of the line. The other element that cannot be ignored is the magnificent and haunting musical score. It's rare that a movie makes me want to immediately go out and buy the CD, but this one did. The score is beautiful, yet menacing at times. I consider it the best score of the year and if the Academy doesn't show it some love I will be very upset.

Watchmen -- This is one of those love it or hate it movies. Yes, there are elements that don't work about it. Yes, it is either too long or too short (and sometimes both). And yet the care that went into crafting it cannot be ignored. Zack Snyder adapted the comic book almost perfectly; there are so many moments that are frames straight out of the pages. The cut released in theaters did feel a bit choppy in places, which the DVD helps. Elements of the film have been derided since it came out. There are some weak performances; Malin Ackerman's Silk Spectre sticks out, though this is as much a flaw in the writing as in the portrayal. The character was much feistier in the book, and with a better haircut. It also seemed odd to me that all of the smoking was cut out of the movie, which left moments like Laurie accidentally pushing the flame-thrower button hang unmotivated. Snyder does ratchet up the violence to his 300 level, and this does sometimes feel gratuitous. But despite that, Watchmen was always for adults, and the film is a film for adults. Some of the nuances that I never expected to make the film were there in loving detail. The effects work was phenomenal, especially seemingly invisible effects like Rorshach's mask. Jackie Earl Haley gives a scene-stealing performance. That alone demands that this film be seen. Maybe Watchmen will always have a cult audience. Warner Bros. certainly marketed the crap out of it in March, but now nobody says anything about it. They don't seem to be submitting it for Academy consideration in any category (even the technical ones) and I think that's a shame. Maybe the film doesn't completely work. But what of the glorious title sequence set to Bob Dylan? Or the other uses of music straight from the comic? My Chemical Romance's version of "Desolation Row" which may just be the best Dylan cover ever? The film might fall short of perfection, but any movie this audacious deserves praise. It is one of the few films from early in the year that really stands out in memory. It was unlike anything I've seen in many ways, and it's a shame that in the year of Avatar, Watchmen may be destined to be the red-headed stepchild.

Star Trek -- It's been seven months, and I still can't decide whether I love or hate this movie. But as a lifelong Trekkie, I will err on the side of love. There was a fun and exuberance to the movie that Trekkies have always known was part of Star Trek, but which seemed to be lost to others until now. Trek has been limping along for the past ten years, and it was great to finally get other people excited about it again. Zachary Quinto does an amazing job as Spock; the real Spock from the series who had emotions he tried to control, not the stoic Spock we all think we remember. Chris Pine was a very good Kirk. Karl Urban fantastically embodied McCoy. When DeForest Kelley became the first original cast member to die, it was often wondered if the role could ever be recast. Fan rumor loved to throw Gary Sinise's name around. Would Sinise have been good? Absolutely. But Karl Urban really captured the character in a subtle and wonderful way. I also loved Bruce Greenwood's Captain Pike (and was pleased that the character was in the movie). I have a number of reservations about this film. It is yet ANOTHER time travel story, and there's still the question of whether it's an alternate universe or an altered timeline. I dislike some of the direction. Sometimes it went too far on the Star Wars end (at times there were obvious shot homages, and there's even an R2-D2 cameo). I hate the redesign of the Enterprise, which was a design that really didn't need to be messed with. The story took major liberties and drastic measures that rub me the wrong way (you can't blow up Vulcan!). And yet, despite all of my reservations, it is still Star Trek. The Kobayashi Maru sequence was a joy to watch. Star Trek may be different, but it's a movie that we are still talking about, and any time Trek gets people talking I am happy.

District 9 -- It's not hard to see why Peter Jackson got behind this movie, since it contains his two movie passions: great effects, and gross-out stuff. District 9 is a lovely, nuanced piece that works on its own terms and as social commentary. Despite being a tad reminiscent of odd movies I've seen before (like Project A-Ko, strangely enough), it remains really quite original. The story of the everyman who comes to identify with the alien by becoming one is actually an old story. But it's never been told like this. The kind of transgressive attack on the body that we see here is reminscent of David Cronenberg. Make no mistake, this film is gory. I was surprised at how R-rated it was. The alien weapons just rip people apart leaving trails of splatter. I haven't seen people explode like that since RoboCop's melting man was hit by the car. My only real issue with the film is that it isn't consistent. At times, it's shot in a documentary style and presented as one complete with talking heads to the camera. But there are other sequences that couldn't possibly be documentary. So I wish they had either completely stuck with one style or somehow more clearly delineated that we were watching two different films edited together. Or something like that. Hopefully that's something that can be improved upon with the inevitable release of District 10. I can't wait.

Where the Wild Things Are -- Yes, there are deviations from the book. Would I have preferred something more jungle than forest in a desert? Yes. Would it have been nice to see some logic behind the seemingly random names of the Wild Things? Yes. But the book is very short and has almost no story. So here we have a film that not only tells the basic story of the movie (Boy causes trouble, boy sent to room, boy flees to "imaginary" world where he becomes king, boy leaves scary beasts and goes back home where his supper is waiting), but enhances it. I am rarely moved to tears by a movie, but this one had me very close. For anyone who has ever wondered what it is like to be a boy, it is captured perfectly by this film. I wish the Academy still gave juvenile Oscars, because Max Records deserves recognition. There's so much to say about this film that one blurb here can't do it justice. Suffice to say, I was genuinely moved and can't wait to see this again. I do wish that the "We'll eat you up, we love you so" line was done better. The proper sentiment is expressed throughout the film, but seems odd the way it comes in the scene itself. And the Bull really doesn't have anything to do. But on the whole it is a triumph and a masterpiece of children's films. Sometimes I wonder why Americans can't make movies with/for kids like they do in Europe. Well, they just did.

A Serious Man -- I'm surprised that the buzz has started to die for this movie. A Serious Man is one of the best movies I saw all year. The Coen Brothers never make boring pictures. Sure, this one is bleak, but it's also very funny and in its own odd way has a lot to say about faith and the human condition. I especially like the little nod to the Biblical story of David and Bathsheba where the guy sees his neighbor sunbathing from his roof, and soon begins an affair. The 1960s sentiment is there, and yet the movie feels modern. I like the references to F Troop and Jefferson Airplane. When I walk out of a movie and immediately consider it one of the best I've seen that year, that says something. And it was better than Avatar.

Fantastic Mr. Fox -- Another animated film, and another in stop-motion. I did enjoy other animated films too. Up was pretty good, though not as good as Pixar's last few. And I wish there was space on this list to include Miyazaki's Ponyo (aka Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea). Where Coraline was slick and used some specialty effects to its advantage, Mr. Fox is intentionally flat and traditional. Still, everything about it works in a contemporary way. Wes Anderson's sensibilities translate surprisingly well to animation. Everything you expect from a Wes Anderson film is here: Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, yellow title cards, camera pans of cutaway sets, the stark compositon. Honestly, from the trailer's first few shots I was asking, "Is this a Wes Anderson movie?" After Henry Selick's stop-motion work in The Life Aquatic, it's interesting to see Anderson go fully animated. And as with James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl seems to work very well in stop-motion. Of all the George Clooney pictures this year, this is my favorite performance of his. Oh, and for animation buffs, there are also several sly references to Disney's Robin Hood, which of course also featured foxes as the leads.

Avatar -- Of course this was going to make the list. As a movie experience, it was a must-see. In many ways, Avatar is a kind of culmination and summation of all Cameron's previous films. Is it perfect? No. Like a modern George Lucas, Cameron has put a lot of time and effort into the development and design of both the technology and the worlds in this film, almost to an absurd degree. But you can tell that the artists must have had fun. The story plays pretty safe and hits a number of familiar themes, though a few of the means to those themes are new and interesting. I wish that the last hour was less preachy, though. To me, if the macguffin of the movie was the unobtainium ore, why was that ignored completely at the end? Titanic suffers a bit similarly as the necklace becomes less and less important. But the politics and familiar feel of the story can't overshadow the achievement. It isn't Cameron's best work. That honor goes to The Abyss or maybe Aliens. But it's a solid work that holds up. And it's better than Titanic. Here's hoping he doesn't win an Oscar and proclaim himself King of Pandora.
Most Unintentional After-effect of Avatar's Release: M. Night Shyamalan's live-action adaptation of the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender could not market itself under the name Avatar.

Sherlock Holmes -- Really, you may ask, Sherlock Holmes? Yes. When the trailer debuted, I said to myself, "This movie is either going to be fantastic, or the worst thing ever." Thankfully, it is the former. Now, the plot may not be the best and is a little Scooby-Doo-ish. It may even seem reminiscent of The X-Files. But what's wrong with that? Fox Mulder, with his seeming leaps of logic is very much like a Sherlock Holmes! It was great to look at these characters and actually not see them overly-modernized. Arthur Conan Doyle's work still holds up. Sure, the story is a complete fabrication, but the characterization is more Doyle than some may think. I'm glad they didn't make Holmes stodgy. Here we have one of the most eccentric Holmes movies since The Seven-per-cent Solution. Jude Law is a fantastic Dr. Watson, reminding us that Watson was not a rotund bumbler; he was a military man! Why NOT let him do some fighting in a film? And Holmes too was a skilled boxer. There are a number of little nods to some of the stories. Robert Downey, Jr. plays Holmes with great relish; he is brilliant, funny, off-putting, and a drug addict (only slyly referenced). The film gets a little action heavy, and does unfortunately feature one of those odd cliches where the action suddenly jumps to a location that is quite far from the previous one, simply to have a cool climax. Even so, I rarely have so much fun at a movie. I hope that all who dismissed this one will give it a chance. And congrats to RDJ for his Golden Globe award!

Up in the Air -- If you see one George Clooney film from this year, see Fantastic Mr. Fox. But if you see two, see Up in the Air, a film with a charm and surprising pathos. I've only seen it recently and am not sure I can process all that's good about it. It may well be that it's been overhyped. But unlike the similarly lauded Little Miss Sunshine, this doesn't feel false or abrupt at the end. I like how the film spends a lot of time trying to break this character out of who he is, only to have it lead to... well, I shouldn't really spoil anything. This movie should have a certain staying power; a resonance for coming years. I don't necessarily think it's Jason Reitman's best film. In a way, Juno holds up a bit better and Thank You For Smoking was funnier. However, even if it is the lesser of three, Up in the Air far surpasses a lot of what we are offered in cinemas these days. It is a small film. It has an independent vibe about it. It may even be that, like Lost in Translation, it doesn't end up playing well on home video. Since I see this as a possibility, I highly recommend seeing it in a theater while you can. And be sure to sit through the credits; the experience is truly not complete until you've heard the home-made sounds of the song "Up in the Air" which perfectly compliment all that came before.

EDIT: I have since seen The Hurt Locker and added it to my list. Read that review for more details.

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