POSTED ON JANUARY 6, 2010:
Flicking through the Old
Recounting 10 of the best films of 2009
Success. Turning a 10-line story into a feature film, completely expanding on the sparse theme and turning it into a richly layered, utterly tangible treatise on the loss of childhood, Spike Jonze committed everything he had to Where the Wild Things Are and was vindicated.
Another year is in the can, and it's time for me to cough up a Top 10 List of the Best, Most Awesome, Mind Blowing, Chakra-Shattering, Cinematic Joygasms of 2009. I had something to mention about my methodology first, and then we'll get right to it.
Since these things are completely arbitrary, I'm listing the Top 10 alphabetically. We're talking about the best films, not favorites (there can be a difference). Regardless, these 10 deserve equal attention, and each of these films is here because they moved me on some emotional level, excelled on their technical merits and showcased talents that will--hopefully--find a place of influence in cinema's future. Also, these aren't necessarily the 10 Best Films of 2009, just the best I've seen.
Not only the best sci-fi film of the year but likely of the decade, District 9 is a gauntlet thrown down by freshman writer/director Neill Blomkamp. A metaphor about immigration transposed through the tropes of science fiction, Blomkamp draws on several genres to craft a film whose low-budget indie aesthetic belies the depth of a world where millions of stranded aliens are forced to carve out a life in a South African society who views them with contempt.
Themes ranging from corporate hegemony, caste systems and the Holocaust pervade the film, while still delivering on the whizz-bang cool of future tech used to splatter effect on some unfortunate flesh bags. Sharlto Copley, as the feckless Wikus van der Merwe, does a stellar job of navigating a character arc that starts at contemptible, peaks at heroic and winds up being the sympathetic soul that ties it all together. It'll leave you salivating for a sequel, though I hope that never happens.
The thing that put Food Inc. in the Top 10 more than anything was not just the importance of its story but the balance with which it leavens it the message that we can effect change simply by voting with our wallets, once armed with knowledge. Not content to be the scariest film of the year, Food Inc. is compulsively watchable, and evenhanded with its mixture of dire warning and hopeful optimism in the power of the informed consumer. The Cove could have easily occupied this space--don't get me wrong, I love dolphins--but Food Inc. is 21st Century muckraking that would make Upton Sinclair proud and tells a story that affects every single one of us.
Quentin Tarantino's magnum opus winds up being more than a return to form after the laborious self-indulgence of Death Proof; Basterds is his best film since Jackie Brown. Sure the self-awareness is still there (see Aldo's meta-proclamation, "This just might be my masterpiece."), but it's tempered by a superior script and great performances. Brad Pitt as Aldo Raine, the all-drawl leader of The Basterds, is a blast, and Mélanie Laurent is ethereal as the vengeful Shosanna Dreyfus. But the performance to savor here is Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, a Nazi with a personality as hypnotic as a snake charmer. Jewish revenge porn, where cinema does nothing less than save the world? Good to have you back, QT.
Lack of visual polish aside, writer/director Oren Moverman's first feature (it's been a hell of a year for first time directors) spins the tale of two Army casualty notification officers, played by Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster, as they strike up a friendship that gives them windows to their respective internal wounds. Deeply wrought characters are given tangible life by Harrelson and Foster's performances, which border on career defining, being equal parts funny and broken (like many of us, no?). Melded together with deft simplicity, Moverman's overtly lo-fi film proves that all you really need to dance with greatness is expert writing, great performances, and genuine emotion.
Duncan Jones is another first timer coming strong out of the gate with this deeply satisfying, hard sci-fi, psychodrama starring Sam Rockwell as a miner serving out a three-year contract on the Moon. His only company is his decidedly HAL-like assistant, and friend, GERTY (unnervingly voiced by Kevin Spacey), as he spends his monotonous days monitoring the daily grind of the machines. It might seem strange to have this on here after the way I just went down on District 9, but the films are entirely different animals. Moon deals with the deeper questions of what reality is, and the meaning of self that lend the narrative a distinctly hard sci-fi sterility that is framed by the cold influences of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien and Tarkovsky's Solaris but are tonal opposites to District 9. Rockwell's largely one-man show ably carries the emotional weight of the character, and Jones (son of David Bowie) proves that talent never falls too far from the tree.
There were many moments in Precious that could have easily careened into severe, cloying melodrama. So it's a testament to director Lee Daniels that he achieved the tenuous balancing act of grabbing the audience by the aorta and pulling, while still crafting a film that feels almost documentary-like in its matter-of-factness, underlined by Gabourey Sidibe's pitch perfect performance. That alone would be enough, but the film defies its grim expectations with an unlikely emotional payoff, and gives us an absolute powerhouse supporting turn from Mo'Nique whose performance as Precious' horrific mother still hasn't completely left my mind.
A Serious Man
The chances of a Coen Brother's film winding up on year-end lists are generally pretty good but usually not with a straight comedy. Not to mention, they haven't made a comedy that has clicked on this many levels since O Brother, Where Art Thou? Highly quirky, personal and darkly hilarious, A Serious Man is a gleeful farce of errors that's elevated by Michael Stulbarg's wonderful lead performance and knocked out of the park by the Coen's superb, cerebral direction. Existential malaise, pathos and hilarity spiral to a pitch perfect crescendo in the film's climax, which was probably my favorite of the year.
This stunning first feature from director Cary Fukunaga proves that the Mexican New Wave is alive and kicking. Weaving together the stories of a gang member whose conscience outgrows his loyalty to his ruthless familia and that of a family of Honduran immigrants whom he protects as they make their way to a better life in the U.S., Sin Nombre is damn near transcendent in concept and execution. Great writing, amazingly natural performances from unknowns and effortless direction, cemented the giddy feeling I got in my mind when I found myself riding the rails with these people and not caring where the next stop was or when the ride would end. This one is out on video, and I highly recommend you lay hands on it.
Pixar has simply never made as an emotionally rich and moving film as Up. The poignant story of an old man who is ready to cast off the mantle of life, but not before he fulfills his dead wife's dream of moving to a near mystical South American lost world called Paradise Falls is undiluted cinema. From the moment a few thousand helium balloons bear Carl Fredricksen's (Ed Asner) house skyward to the heartrending montage of Carl and Ellie's happy but incomplete life (where if you do not shed some kind of tear than you are Dick Cheney),to the perfectly realized climactic battle of literal and figurative dreams, Up is deeply touching and completely air tight in its whimsical story-telling prowess.
Where the Wild Things Are
I'm still struggling with this one. How often do art-house children's films get made now-a-days? By the same token, how often will I feel compelled to re-visit one? What I do know is that Where the Wild Things Are is audacious on just about every level possible. Turning a 10-line story into a feature film, completely expanding on the sparse theme and turning it into a richly layered, utterly tangible treatise on the loss of childhood, Spike Jonze committed everything he had to this troubled production and was vindicated. WtWTA is haunting, touching, sage and darkly beautiful. While I don't know how many times I'll feel the need to see it again, much like Up and Precious, it was, for me, one of the most emotionally moving films of the year--particularly if you can still see the ghost of yourself through the mist of long-lost childhood.
The Cove, Antichrist, World's Greatest Dad, Up in the Air, An Education
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