Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Basterds, Balloons and Na’vi, Oh My! The Best Films of 2009

It’s been a rather odd year. I would say it’s a step above last year except to be honest, I had a little trouble coming up with my ten favorite movies. And that’s not because there were too many to choose from but rather too few. There are plenty of good films but not many outstanding ones. I will always remember 2009 as the year that gave us “500 Days of Summer” which went straight into my top 50 favorite films of all time. It’s simply magical filmmaking. I have a rather strange mix of films that range from romantic comedies to horror to animation. Some are Oscar hopefuls and others are… not. Here are my top ten favorite films of the year…

1) (500) Days of Summer
Probably best described as one of the most “delightful” films of the year, (500) Days of Summer happily takes one of the most clichéd-filled genres (rom-com) and turns it upside down. This is a wonderfully fresh tale of a guy who meets girl. Except this time it’s the guy who believes in fate while the girl who is the one who doesn’t believe in the existence of “love.” It’s all put together superbly by first time director Marc Webb who employs some fabulously witty cinematic tricky that never feels gimmicky but rather feels just right. You couldn’t hope for a better screen couple than Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel who simply sparkle together on screen and I’d be surprised if you weren’t as emotional attached to these people as I was. Simply charming!
FUN FACT! The film's blue-centric color scheme was done to bring out Zooey Deschanel's eyes.

2) I Love You, Man

If (500) Days of Summer is the best romantic comedy of the year, then “I Love You, Man” is the best bromantic comedy of the year. This film somehow spoke to me. I somehow identified so easily with Paul Rudd’s Peter Klaven. This story involves Peter getting engaged and realizing that he has no male friends to be a part of his wedding party. No best man! So he sets off on a quest to make friends and he finds one in Sydney Fife (Jason Segal) who is someone (almost) everyone would want to be friends with. He’s funny and charming yet rude and brutally honest. Peter and Sydney’s awkward courting consists of some of the warmest and funniest moments in movies this year. I love this movie.
FUN FACT! J.K. Simmons, who plays Paul Rudd's father, is only 14 years older than him.

3) Up in the Air
Up in the Air will stand the test of time. It is simply a movie for our time. A movie that will reflect our society 10 years down the line, 30 years down the line, 70 years down the line. It will be remembered. From Jason Reitman the guy who brought us Thank You For Smoking and 2007’s super hip hit Juno, Up in the Air is an anything but formulaic drama about a guy (George Clooney) who fires people for a living. He spends his life alone, although he thinks he’s “surrounded” and prefers a life up in the air traveling across the country living in and out of airports and hotels for his work. Of course, things change when a young employer (the fantastic Anna Kendrick) with the company devises a way to fire people over the internet. A subplot involving a sassy traveling businesswoman (Vera Farmiga) makes the whole film simply shine with outstanding performances and assured direction and storytelling.
FUN FACT! With the exception of the famous actors, every person we see fired in the film is not an actor but a real life recently laid off person.

4) Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Precious feels important because it feels real. It feels legitimate. The story takes place in the 80s in Harlem and an overweight teen named Precious is pregnant with her second child. Her father rapes her (and impregnates her). Her mother, played with monstrous authority by Mo’Nique, is abusive and careless. Precious is one of the most introverted characters on film this year and yet newcomer Gabby Sidibe plays her with the talent you’d expect from someone who’s been in the business for years. I was really shocked at how flashy and innovate Lee Daniels’ direction was. We really get into the mind of Precious and realize the only way out of her life is actually in. This is powerful filmmaking.
FUN FACT! Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe was cast a mere six weeks before the start of shooting after being forced to audition by friends.

5) Up
Surprise, surprise, Pixar has made yet another winning movie. Up is wonderful as all the others but reaches emotional depth that took me, and I’m sure most people, off guard. The relationship between a cranky old man and a young well-intentioned adventure scout isn’t something I would have necessarily pegged as “emotional” but somehow it works. Carl misses his late wife, who like him longed for adventure and fun, and yet they never really were able to take all the adventures they always hoped for. So he straps thousands of balloons to his house and accidentally takes little Russell with him. They find lots of other fun characters in South America where they encounter talking dogs and a colorful bird named Kevin. Up is a warm journey that can be loved by all and should be. Its theme of making the most out of life is universal. This is Pixar at its best (Although ‘Finding Nemo’ is still my favorite).
FUN FACT! Very first animated film, as well as the first 3D film, ever to open the Cannes Film Festival.

6) Drag Me to Hell
Sam Raimi returns to his horror roots with this odd horror tale about a lone officer who is cursed by an evil gypsy woman. Its too bad that this hysterical and horrifying movie sort of got lost in the busy summer schedule, but if you like gross-out gags and dark humor than Drag Me to Hell is right up your alley. If you were turned off by the PG-13 rating, which I was at first, don’t be. This film features plenty of gross shocks and disgusting images. Sure there may not be much actually bloodshed, but make no mistake this movie is actually pretty frightening. It’s utterly over-the-top in a way that only Sam Raimi could pull off. This is fun, flashy horror worth seeking out.
FUN FACT! The license plate of Sylvia Ganush's car is 99951. When it is turned upside-down, it reads IS666.

7) Avatar
Odds are you’ve hear of this little movie called “Avatar.” It’s from that guy who make that movie about the boat that hits the iceberg. Yeah you remember him? He declared himself ‘King of the World’ at the 1998 Oscar ceremony. Well his next film, which took him twelve long years to come to fruition, is worth the wait. Early advertisements toted “Avatar” as a film that would change movies forever and you’d never be the same after seeing it. I’m not sure about that, but this is a wonderfully imaginative film in the future about a tribe of alien people named the Na’vi who come under attack by humans who are after a precious mineral. They’ve come up with a way to use “avatar” bodies that are psychically linked with a human mind to infiltrate the indigenous race. James Cameron has done it again and delivered a rip roaring adventure in glorious 3D and state of the art motion capture special effects.
FUN FACT! In much of the movie, Sigourney Weaver's avatar is wearing a Stanford shirt. Weaver attended Stanford in the early 1970s.

8) Knowing
If you had asked me before I saw “Knowing” whether it would be any good, I don’t think I would have answered yes. I think I’ll award “Knowing” the ‘surprise’ movie of the year in that its marketers made it seem like a generic end of the world movie and yet it’s so much more. It’s a film that seems like any other movie at first and just grows and grows. Some may say it gets utterly ridiculous and unbelievable. Sure it’s unbelievable, it doesn’t make the movie any less entertaining or well-made. Nicholas Cage plays a college professor whose son participates in the unearthing of a school time capsule. His son receives an envelope that has a bunch of numbers scrawled on it and Cage soon figures out that all of the numbers are predictions of every major deadly disaster on the planet Earth. Sound ridiculous? It is and it’s fascinating to watch and just one example of great science fiction filmmaking in the year of 2009.
FUN FACT! The perceptual phenomenon of people looking for patterns in randomness (number strings, faces in trees, shapes in clouds etc.) is called Apophenia.

9) Inglourious Basterds
I certainly couldn’t predict that Quentin Tarantino’s Nazi-killing-epic would have garnered the amount of critical accolades it has received so far, especially since it's not nearly his best film. It seemed like, in a career as successful as his, he’s been bound to have a critical bomb at some point (He’s already had a financial bomb, that was his half [Death Proof] of the severely underrated “Grindhouse” double feature). Only Tarantino could rewrite history the way he does in “Inglourious Basterds.” And yes that title is intentionally spelled wrong, which have been wrecking havoc on computerized spellcheckers everywhere. “Basterds” takes place during World War II and instead of focusing solely on Jews getting slaughtered as part of Hitler’s grand scheme, the tables have turned and Nazi slaughtering is on the menu instead. Every bit of Tarantino’s trademarks are present and accounted for including long talky scenes with quotable dialogue, disturbing violence, and a mish-mashed narrative structure ala “Pulp Fiction.” Think “Kill Bill” with Nazis.
FUN FACT! Quentin Tarantino intended for this to be as much a war film as a spaghetti western, and considered titling the movie "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France". He gave that title instead to the first chapter of the film.

10) Brüno
Ist ze tenth best of ze year! I was honestly dumbfounded when it came to rounding out my top ten. It could have been ‘The Princess and the Frog’ it could have been ‘A Single Man’ it could have been ‘Where the Wild Things Are.’ But something about ‘Brüno’ just makes sense to me. If you loved “Borat” you’re probably going to love this as well. Sacha Baron Cohen has never been funnier than he is portraying Bruno, a gay Austrian fashionista who’s blacklisted in his home country and comes to the United States looking for fame. Sure structure-wise it’s basically just like Borat, but you know what? When it’s funny once, it can be funny twice. And it is. You have to admit how amazing Cohen makes you believe the characters he portrays. Almost no one else is capable of that. You believe him as Brüno. His interactions in this hysterical mockumentary with stage moms, TV focus groups, talk show audiences, redneck hunters, and a religious “gay converter” are simply too priceless for words. It’s shocking and disturbing (whoa that ending!) and yet this film (as does “Borat”) simply reflects this strange society we live in. Wunderbar!
FUN FACT! The sequence where Bruno enrolled at the Alabama National Guard, filmed at the Alabama Military Academy, went undetected until a young cadet who recognized him from ‘Borat,’ notified elder officers who were unfamiliar with the actor.

Honorable Mentions:
A Single Man
Where the Wild Things Are
The Princess and the Frog
Fantastic Mr. Fox

Bad Judgment Call (on my behalf):
The Hurt Locker

Dishonorable Mentions:
Halloween II
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Monsters vs. Aliens