Monday, February 08, 2010

The Best Films of 2009, Part II

Sorry about the jacked-up formatting on both of these posts. I hate Blogger. Anyway,


33. Sunshine Cleaning- Christine Jeffs
Megan Holley's script has some charming character development moments, and the chemistry between Emily Blunt and Amy Adams is convincingly sisterly. I didn't always buy the motivations of Adams' character, but this is one of those films you can recommend confidently to almost anyone.

32. Tyson- James Toback
Tyson is a simple picture in which the title subject serves as the only voice in the film, speaking directly--sometimes defiantly--to the camera as the events he's describing are played over his voice. But what a voice that is. We learn way more about Tyson's complex mindset from spending eighty minutes with him than we do from all of history's treatment of him. His explanation of how fear contributed to his fighting style is particularly illuminating.
31. The Carter- Adam Bahla Lough 
The biggest thing this documentary--hailed as a rap version of D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back--has going for it is timing. It catches Lil' Wayne at the height of his fame and influence and, without even trying to, captures him as a selfish, shallow, drug-addicted dilletante. While it also showcases his capricious genius, the more personal portrait of Wayne is refreshingly unforgiving.
30. Extract- Mike Judge
I'll admit that the entire second half of this film goes nowhere, and the ending is anti-climactic at best. But when Extract works, it's genuinely funny, and the character details are spot-on.
29. Star Trek- JJ Abrams
This is how a franchise should be reinvented. The film has a staggering sense of energy and wonder surrounding it, along with a structure that both keeps us moving and fills us in on a fascinating backstory. Think about how difficult Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto's jobs were here. Kirk and Spock are two of the most beloved and defined characters around, and both of them manage to pay them homage while also doing something completely new. Both men have unbelievable presence onscreen, and I'm looking forward to seeing where they go from here.
28. Taken- Pierre Morel

I like a deep, well-crafted, personal story as much as anyone. But sometimes it's enough to be badass. There are few movies as badass as Taken. 

27. Public Enemies- Michael Mann
 I didn't respond to the stilted reverence with which Mann's camera glides around Johnny Depp's Dillinger, but Mann's dedication to shooting this story digitally is what separates it from any other period gangster picture. The realistic colors and hand-held imperfection he gets from HD lend an immediacy I've never felt from something set in the '20s. There isn't much for him to do on the page, but Depp delivers here with a smokey gravitas all his own.

26. Goodbye Solo- Ramin Bahrani
As understated as Goodbye Solo can be throughout, its ending is sweeping and powerful. The relationship between the two principal characters grows realistically throughout the film, and it's depicted with a loving tone by neo-neo-realist Bahrani.
25. Funny People- Judd Apatow
Unlike Goodbye Solo, this is a film in which the protagonist does not change as much as we expect him to, and that's what I liked most about it. Sandler's George Simmons changes halfway, but we get the sense that he's not going to make it as far as we'd like. Seth Rogen does some strong work as the moral center, straying a bit from what we're used to from him, and he provides some of the bittersweet notes the movie excels at hitting.

24. Big Fan- Robert D. Siegel
It's not as funny as most people would expect--Patton Oswalt's expressive face is much more concerned with creating pathos than chuckles--but Big Fan presents an interesting premise, and it doesn't really do anything wrong the whole movie. All the way through its knowing conclusion, it doesn't hit any false notes.
23. A Single Man- Tom Ford
This movie is kind of in love with its own desperate dourness, but I was impressed by Ford as a craftsman. Every frame looks as if it was obsessed over, and every visual detail works. Colin Firth's lead performance is staggering.
22. Brothers- Jim Sheridan
I was surprised this film didn't get better reviews because it hooked me. The performances were all spot-on, and the stakes of the film escalated quickly. This was a tough movie to pull off and, though I wasn't satisfied by the ending, I think Jim Sheridan delivered one of his best.
21. The Hurt Locker- Kathryn Bigelow
The Hurt Locker is explosive and filled with tension. I was especially attracted to the confusion all of the action scenes are cloaked in. As claustrophobic as they are, they're made more dangerous by the fact that we don't always know who's shooting or where they're shooting from. This is a movie in which anything can happen, and that mystery is on full display. I did think that the movie spelled out a few too many of its themes. The script has a penchant for explaining exactly what the characters are thinking and sort of babying us, especially at the end. Still pretty great though.

20. An Education- Lone Scherfig
If the last ten minutes of this film didn't exist, it would be perfect. Through a few scenes that take away the stakes of what has been built and a dreadful voiceover that wraps everything up with a bow, An Education keeps itself from being the glorious, ebullient film it had established itself as up to that point. It's unfortunate that the movie, despite crowd-pleasing performances from everyone involved, steps on itself in the final stretch.

19. The Girlfriend Experience- Steven Soderbergh
With its non-performance by Sasha Grey and its challenging structure, The Girlfriend Experience defies description. Warts and all, the latest Steven Soderbergh experiment has more to say about relationships and intimacy than almost anything.
18. Crazy Heart- Scott Cooper
Jeff Bridges' wounded performance is as advertised. This is the exact same movie as The Wrestler, but he fills every frame with a worn authenticity that makes the whole thing work. I doubted some of the decisions Maggie Gyllenhaal made, but this is a piercing, life-affirming character study.
17. The Messenger- Oren Moverman
The Messenger is the best film ever made about the guilt that often comes with grief. Its performances are honest, and Moverman's decision to shoot everything in long takes serves the movie's raw emotional power well.
16. Food Inc.- Robert Kenner
This is another movie I pre-judged and was completely wrong about. It's persuasive and entertaining and makes its argument by focusing on the victims of the food industry, rather than demonizing Big Food itself. 
15. Two Lovers- James Gray
This is a sparse, intimate film that moves with a deliberate, heart-breaking pace. People have justifiably written about Joaquin Phoenix's performance, but Gwyneth Paltrow is the secret weapon here. She spent her entire career trying not to play dumb bitches; when she finally does play one here, we realize it's something she does very well.


14. A Serious Man- Joel and Ethan Coen
This is a dream-like film that has its own rhythms and darkly comedic worldview. Even when it doesn't work (the many imaginary sequences), you have to reward a movie that is concerned with asking (and sort of answering) questions about the very nature of existence. From the poetic yiddish prologue to its game-changing final shot, this is a masterful piece of work.
13. Humpday- Lynn Shelton
This is the film that bridges the gap between mumblecore and something completely exciting and new. The dialogue here is so telling and steeped in character that it's hard to believe it was all improvised. Because it tries to be so definitive in its treatment of art, narcissism, and 21st century men, it's easy to forget how wryly funny the movie is. I'd bet a lot of people aren't familiar with Humpday, and it's one you won't forget once you see it.
12. Fantastic Mr. Fox- Wes Anderson
I don't usually do this but uh...nothing I say could explain this movie better than Will Leitch's capsule review:
"The problem with Anderson’s recent movies is that they have all felt like chamber pieces: The actors stand here, often receding into the background of the sets, reciting their dialogue like they’re in a Wes Anderson movie and this is how they figure they’re expected to act. Nothing ever feels particularly life-like in Anderson’s movies — they’re more like product shoots for Anderson’s meticulous, fussy and cool adolescent mind. Thus, a stop-animation adaptation of a children’s novel is the logical conclusion of Anderson’s career, where he was going all along. We accept the artifice this time around by the very nature of the project; in the absence of flesh-and-blood, we provide our own, filling in the gaps for Anderson. It’s entertaining and tolerable in a way that I fear isn’t ultimately good for Anderson, but works here. If every movie Anderson makes from now on involves him physically picking up the actors and changing their facial expressions to convey exactly what exists in his brain, he’ll fulfill the promise we had for him. He can’t, though. Real people are too messy. Fortunately, foxes aren’t." There you go. Perfect.
11. Zombieland- Ruben Fleischer
It's not as literate and deep as some of the other stuff on this part of the list, but Zombieland is hilarious, entertaining, and well-made. This is a fully-realized universe and a ride that I didn't want to end. All of the actors play variations of the characters they play best, and they nailed it here. Films this fun (or, secretly, structured so well) don't come around often.

10. Up in the Air- Jason Reitman
George Clooney is at his confident best in this Old Hollywood-style charmer. The more I think about it, the less I like it; but there are a few powerhouse scenes here that I'll remember long after anything else this year. All of the supporting performances are studied, and there's very little fat here. Each moment serves a greater purpose.
9. The Hangover- Scott Phillips
This is already in the comedy canon. You can't ignore how consistently, irreverently funny The Hangover is, and how star-making every single one of its performances is. Think about how filthy this movie is at times. For Phillips to create something universal enough for grandmas to be buying Hangover DVDs as stocking stuffers is special. We only get a comedy that is this wide-reaching and impacting every few years.
8. The Brothers Bloom- Rian Johnson
Despite its Wes Anderson swagger-jacking, every detail of The Brothers Bloom is lovingly imagined. The title relationship is one of the more convincing portraits of brothers around, and Nathan Johnson's meditative but whimsical score is one of the film's best assets. The many disparate pieces of The Brothers Bloom add up to a joyous, yearning experience.

7. District 9- Neill Blomkamp
There's a line early on in District 9 that goes something like, "People were surprised that the aliens landed in Johannesburg instead of somewhere like New York." Upon further reflection, it makes a lot of sense because the setting is, like the film itself, worlds apart from what we would expect and specific in a way that few other films would bother with. The aliens are designed well, the effects are awe-inspiring, and the satire works; but none of that would matter if the character foundation wasn't there. Sharlto Copley is poignant and affecting as Wikus Van de Merwe, and he goes a harrowing journey in the course of the film. Even if I explained it all to you, you wouldn't believe how the character goes from a nerdy point A to a desperate, gun-toting point B. It has to be seen to be believed.

6. Summer Hours- Olivier Assayas
In Summer Hours an art collecting matriarch dies, and her children have to decide how to divvy up her possessions--which pieces should be in a museum, which pieces have sentimental value, etc. And yes, the film is poetic in its views on what art is and how we all respond to it. But the most underrated aspect of the writing and performances is that none of these characters seems wrong. Each character has a completely different opinion about his or her mother's legacy, but we understand and love each point of view. That type of narrative empathy and precision is almost impossible to pull off. Seek this out.
5. (500) Days of Summer- Marc Webb
This is a movie that is drunk on its own inventiveness and style. As sort of an Annie Hall update, it's as exhilarating and dynamic as it is relatable and rousing. The screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber get a lot of mileage out of flipping the expected rom-com convention: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the clingy romantic, and it's the gorgeous Zooey Deschanel who is the selfish commitment-phobe. You'd be surprised how well this works, and a lot of the credit has to go to Deschanel, who isn't afraid to, without judgment or equivocation, play a character who is unquestionably the problem in the story. At the very least, (500) Days of Summer is a nice twist on a worn-out genre; at its best, it's a devastating, touchingly personal treatment of the most intriguing theme there is.

4. Anvil! The Story of Anvil- Sacha Gervasi
Anvil is an influential, but largely forgotten, metal band whose heyday was twenty years ago. What Anvil! The Story of Anvil captures is what that band is up to now, which is somehow both pathetic and inspiring. We have this agreement as a civilization that you're not allowed to make fun of people's dreams, but Gervasi makes us face two men--one specifically--with a ridiculous, unrealistic dream. The same qualities that made him psuedo-successful are the ones that make him sort of pathetic now. We're taken inside this world that is cruel and petty, but our guides are these dedicated men who depend upon each other and are so unique that you couldn't make them up.


3. Up- Pete Docter
You've heard it before, but that doesn't make it any less true: the first ten minutes of Up are as emotionally devastating as anything this year. Even when it gets broad and turns into an episode of Duck-Tales in the final act, the emotional core of Up is so honest and touching that it doesn't matter. Think about how cliched the characters of a crotchety old man and an eager, know-it-all boy scout could be. Then think about how fresh the characters of Carl and Russell are. Like most Pixar features, this is a towering achievement visually, but it's even more of a storytelling triumph.
 2. Adventureland- Greg Mottola
Like the best autobiographical movies, Adventureland is a painfully nostalgic, nostalgically painful memory that is also wise and downright bemused about the world as it's viewed through an artist's awkward phase. One thing that kept standing out to me as I watched the characters negotiate themselves around bars and house parties and a job they hate to love was: "These kids don't seem old enough to be drinking. This feels like a high school movie, even though they're doing adult things. They seem awkward in this bar." Then it occurred to me that that's exactly how your early twenties feel. Everyone is pretending. Most films cast high schoolers are twentysomethings, but Greg Mottola does it the other way around. This film is transcendent for many other reasons: Martin Starr's rehearsed self-loathing, the use of music, the crackly dialogue. But everything boils down to that notion that none of the characters can ignore: it's not supposed to be like this. Except that we all know it is.

1. Inglourious Basterds- Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino has made some of my favorite movies, but even Pulp Fiction, his de facto masterpiece, doesn't have anything to offer emotionally. Up to this point, he had been a stylist; he knew how to be cool. In Inglouious Basterds, he tries out suspense and does it better than anyone in a prologue that will be used in acting classes for decades. He tries to establish a period and stretch out scenes to make us feel alternately familiar and uncomfortable, and he does it better than anyone. He tries to get us to feel understanding for a monster, and we do (because he's cool). He tries to get us to feel, and he pulls it off. This is easily Tarantino's most mature work, and, luckily for him, he has Christoph Waltz to help him with the more difficult parts. Inglourious Basterds boldly creates its own history, and it shows, quite literally, the power of cinema. If we're only watching one film from 2009 in 2029, this is it. 

Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Best Films of 2009, Part I

It's mid-February in New Orleans, which means I've finally been able to catch up with all the movies I'm interested in. This is, ranked, all of the 2009 films I saw (sorry Blind Side). I didn't see everything I wanted to catch--I don't feel as if I ever will--but I feel comfortable with these seventy-one, and I've divided them into categories that provide a bit of insight on how I regard them.
I've provided my judgments, and I've included pictures from the sublime site Movies in Frames when available. Let's just say I worked a lot harder on this than the Best Albums of the Year list.


71. Bride Wars- Gary Winnick

These characters are so hateful and catty that it's impossible to feel anything but contempt for them. The attitude of Bride Wars could set women back forty years. Thankfully, it's way too insignificant and contrived to do that kind of damage.

70. Gigantic- Matt Aselton-
Quirk doesn't replace character and story, and even Zooey can't save a film that, frankly, doesn't make sense at times.
69. Year One- Harold Ramis-
Crass and poorly-written, with no continuity or respect for the audience.
68. My Bloody Valentine 3-D- Patrick Lussier-
Props to the explicit 3-D nude scene, but otherwise this is a predictable, tedious, bloody affair.
67. Of Time and the City- Terence Davies-
I don't mind pretension, but I do mind boring pretension. I appreciate the staggering amount of archival footage, but Davies' filmic essay could not end soon enough for me.
66. Fast & Furious- Justin Lin-
Lin strips away all of the cheekiness that made the first and third installments fun and replaces it with bloated, anchorless posturing.
65. The Cove- Louie Psyhoyis-
The documentary fave of Sundance 2008 is irrational in its one-sided fervor. It's one of those non-fiction films in which you go, "So...the director realizes his subject is insane, right? No? He's still admiring him? Hmph."
64. Bruno- Larry Charles-
It's unclear whom the satire of Bruno is directed toward. The fashion industry? The media? Homosexuals? Homophobes? The lack of focus and the complete disregard for a narrative make me afraid to watch Borat again.
63. Paper Heart- Nick Jasonevic-
Again, a movie that has no idea what it wants to be. The film attempts to be both a non-fictional analysis of love and a fictional account of Yi's love affair with Michael Cera, who has very little to do here. It fails to inspect either with any of the depth or inventiveness it thinks it does.
62. Medicine for Melancholy- Barry Jenkins-
This movie has a ten minute detour about gentrification that involves neither of the main characters and exists solely to develop a theme that was delivered too lazily in the first place. Movies don't work that way.
61. I Love You, Beth Cooper- Chris Columbus-
Everything that was charming and knowing about Larry Doyle's novel is ruined by stereotypes, ignorance, and slapstick.
60. Notorious- George Tillman, Jr.-
I guess I'm getting old when I can look at historical biopics and go, "Wait, that's not accurate. That's not how it happened or felt at the time." Then again, take this with a grain of salt. I saw this because I was so drunk I walked into the wrong theater.
59. Management- Stephen Belber

It's only 94 minutes, but Management's interminable episodes feel much longer than that, and it's protagonist is an unlikeable nut.


58. The Lovely Bones- Peter Jackson-
There are two skillfully directed scenes here--if you've seen it, you immediately know the two I'm talking about--but there are about five different tones at work here, and none of them congeal into something that moves me. Jackson gets so much credit for visual prowess, but the In-Between World here is about as impressive as a Windows background, and--this is all you need to know--there's a scene in which the Crazy Grandma (TM) puts too much detergent in the washer and BUBBLES GO EVERYWHERE, Y'ALL!
57. Antichrist- Lars von Trier

The slow motion prologue is gorgeous, and the first half of Antichrist overall is a harrowing portrait of grief. Then it descends into shock tactics that purposefully alienate the audience. If you want to see Willem Dafoe ejacluate blood, this is the film for you. Oh, spoilers. Sorry.

56.Whatever Works- Woody Allen

I wouldn't say there's anything terrible about this, but it's slight and not particularly funny. Another entry in the Minor Allen canon.
55. Sin Nombre- Cary Fukunaga

Visually, Sin Nombre is pretty stunning, but the motivations and decisions of the characters are incoherent.

54. Precious- Lee Daniels

This is a film that, impressive performances aside, earns none of the empathy that it shoots for and attains none of the profundity it assumes it already possesses. It's a film made by Black people for White Liberal Intellectuals.
53. The Informant!- Steven Soderbergh
There's no denying that this is an interesting film, especially in the quickly unraveling third act, but it seeks a dryly humorous tone that it never really can grasp a hold of. And it runs a bit long.
52. Coraline- Henry Selick

The problem with this film is that it has no idea who its audience is. It's a simple story about imagination and wish-fulfillment that any kid could latch onto, but it's also kind of scary and specific in a way that only adults could appreciate. I was caught somewhere in the middle and felt kind of detached the whole time. 

51. Invictus- Clint Eastwood

This isn't a bad movie in any way (except for the CGI crowds and plane, which are of sub-standard early '90s quality), but it also dumbed things down embarrassingly. For instance, there's a scene in which a charity attempts to give a South African rugby jersey to an indigent kid, and he refuses to take it. Based on the context, we understand why. But then the Black lady tells the White lady, "he feels embarrassed by the team and doesn't feel as if they represent him" or something like that. Thanks, Clint. Bang-up job overall.


50. He's Just Not That Into You- Ken Kwapis
I'm a sucker for ensemble films, and the cast is eager to please here. It's too long and ambitious though.
49. Sugar- Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden
I loved the tiny notes of characterization here, but I felt as if the film kind of lost its way with some of the subplots. So much of it depends upon the lead performance, and I didn't find Algenis Perez Soto convincing in it.
48. The Proposal- Anne Fletcher

There's some crazy shit going on in this movie--Betty White paganism?--but it mostly succeeds at what it's trying to do and features winning performances from Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. 

47. Avatar- James Cameron

I saw this in IMAX 3D with a buddy of mine. When we walked out of the theater, he saw someone he knew who informed us of where you need to sit in the theater to best enjoy this sumptuous visual feast. "Where do you have to sit for the characters and dialogue to be any good?" I asked. Fuck this movie.
46. The Taking of Pelham 123- Tony Scott


If you like the hammy John Travolta as much as I do, this is the movie for you. The Taking of Pelham 123 is way better than it needs to be, developing all of its characters believably--even James Gandolfini's cowardly mayor--and throwing in some extraneous action. This was worth seeing, if only for Travolta's line reading of "Lick my bunghole, motherfucker!"

45. Observe and Report- Jody Hill

Even if it falls a bit short of what it's trying to achieve, this movie really went out on a limb tonally. There are few characters as complex as Seth Rogen's Ronnie Barnhardt in any comedy, and the film forces us to follow him in an admirably uncompromising way.
44. Away We Go- Sam Mendes
I really liked this until it crashed and burned in the last twenty minutes. There's actually a speech in the last scene that boils down all of the subtext and themes that had been elegantly unspoken up to that point.
43. World's Greatest Dad- Bobcat Goldthwait
The poor production values were a bit distracting, but I loved the pacing and performances here. Here's what separates this from any other dark comedy though: there's a teenaged character in this who is despicable, and Goldthwait doesn't pull any punches. Instead of being misunderstood, the kid is just a terrible human being, and that's kind of refreshing.
42. Watchmen- Zack Snyder

There are moments here that are electric and inspired, but some of the directorial decisions--music cues, the casting of Malin Akerman--overshadow any of those moments. Jackie Earle Haley was awesome though.

41. Valentino: The Last Emperor- Matt Trynauer

There are five or so films going on here--a portrait of a loving relationship between two men, a character study of a perfectionist, an assessment of the changing fashion scene--but Trynauer can't balance any of those well. On the plus side, there's a lot of nudity in this, even though it's rated PG-13. Always a nice surprise.
40. In the Loop- Armando Iannucci
In the Loop is hilarious, but it's little more than strung-together jokes. It's supposed to be this biting satire, but I didn't find it particularly poignant or creative in its send-up of the war.
39. Where the Wild Things Are- Spike Jonze
The real-world book-ends were tragic and moving, and I love the look of the movie. The middle part on the island sort of bored me though. I understand what Jonze and his co-writer Dave Eggers were trying to do, but I wasn't on the same page.
38. I Love You, Man- John Hamburg
The leads are charming, and I like how pleasant and good-natured the whole thing feels. But considering the talent involved, shouldn't this have been a whole lot funnier?
37. Drag Me to Hell- Sam Raimi
A completely average thriller that is saved by a ballsy ending. 
36. Moon- Duncan Jones

Sam Rockwell gives one (or two or three) of the performances of the year in this claustrophobic old school sci-fi slow burn. Unfortunately, I don't really like claustrophobic old school sci-fi slow burns.

35. Lymelife- Derick Martini

 Martini does a good job of capturing a specific time and place, even if he kind of shoves it down your throat sometimes. Emma Roberts was impressive, and Alec Baldwin played himself admirably.
34. The Road- John Hillcoat
In a common theme for this section of the list, the performances were pitch-perfect here. The film is intense and, for most of it, as bleak as anything you've seen (that is, if you haven't seen Antichrist). Honestly, it's difficult to watch.