|The 10 Best Films of 2009
|by Peter Sobczynski
There are hundreds and hundreds of lists out there right now purporting to highlight the Ten Best Films of 2009. This is the only completely accurate one. Enjoy.
Before I begin my recap of the ten best films of 2009, along with the ten runners-up and a list of the other films that I enjoyed to one degree or another throughout the past year, I want to comment on one potentially pressing matter. As some of you eagle-eyed readers will no doubt notice, I did not name “Avatar” as the best film of the year. Not only that, I didn’t include it anywhere on the ten best list or on the other lists included here. There is a very simple explanation for its absence and that is the fact that it isn’t a very good movie--instead of maintaining the delicate balance of technological innovation and classical narrative structure that have made his previous films so effective, James Cameron clearly spent more time on the technical details than the dramatic ones and the result was a hugely disappointing three hours of mostly first-rate visuals overwhelming a third-rate story that turned out to be little more than “A Man Called Horse” with blue things in the place of the Indians. Do not write in telling me that its absence invalidates the entire article or that my refusal to join in the bizarre fan boy worship means that I no longer have any credibility as a critic. (I thought that question had been settled years ago when I publicly voiced my devotion the “Resident Evil” films.) Do not send me messages that refer to me as a douchebag or which cite the film’s box-office totals as proof that my opinion is wrong. If you do, I will most likely reprint said responses for all to see in a manner that will include your name (or whatever alias you have devised for yourself), your e-mail address and the original spelling and punctuation of your missive. Someone will wind up looking foolish and it won’t be me.
Oh, and everything stated above goes double for any of you “Star Trek” fanatics out there.
And now, the 10 best films of 2009. Enjoy.
1. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (directed by Quentin Tarantino): With the exception of “Avatar,” Quentin Tarantino’s long-awaited World War II epic was easily the most anticipated film of 2009 but unlike that disappointment, it not only lived up to its expectations, it managed to exceed them. Instead of the straightforward “Dirty Dozen” knock-off about a bunch of Jewish soldiers bumping off Nazis promised by the initial trailers, it turned out to be a formally dazzling work that subverted all genre expectations (such as its focus on verbal flights of fancy over huge battle scenes) while still providing plenty of thrills, laughs and suspense. Throw in brilliant screenwriting (the opening farmhouse interrogation is already a thing of legend), an increasingly mature directorial approach, two of the year’s finest performances (from Christoph Waltz as the face of implacable milk-sipping evil and Melanie Laurent as the young woman who literally uses the power of film to avenge the deaths of her family) and a finale that audaciously rewrites history while quoting two Brian De Palma films and you have the most fascinating and downright entertaining film of the year.
2. A SERIOUS MAN (directed by Joel & Ethan Coen): Capping off a decade that solidified their position on the list of top American filmmakers (yes, I even maintain a soft spot for the likes of “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers”), the Coen Brothers gave us this mesmerizing work about a Jewish academic (Michael Stuhlbarg in another one of the year’s great performances) in a humdrum Minnesota suburb circa 1967 who is inexplicably beset with an astonishing array of personal and professional traumas and struggles to understand why he has been chosen to receive such hardship despite having adhered to strong moral and ethical standards for his entire life. Not strictly a comedy (though it contains any number of huge laughs) and not strictly a drama (though it was far more profound and thought-provoking than most serious-minded films I could name), this is the kind of singular work that only the Coens would have contemplated in the first place and that only the Coens could have possibly pulled off. Hell, this was a film so good that it even managed to breathe new life and restore some of the seductive mystery to something as seemingly hackneyed and overplayed as Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.”
3. THE HURT LOCKER (directed by Kathryn Bigelow): Having spent most of the decade in movie jail after the back-to-back failures of the not-entirely-uninteresting “The Weight of Water” (2000) and the not-at-all-interesting “K-19: The Widowmaker”--a sentence only broken up by the occasional bit of television work and a Lamborghini promotional short featuring Uma Thurman--Bigelow decisively reinstated herself as a major filmmaker with this gripping account of a bomb disposal unit in Iraq thrown into turmoil when they receive a new leader (Jeremy Renner) whose risky approach to his job, while apparently successful, threatens all of their lives. Whether you look at it as a powerful drama observing the ways that people cope (or not) in the face of unimaginable pressure or as an exciting war film filled with expertly directed sequences of white-knuckle suspense, this film delivered the goods and then some. The only drawback is that most audiences, presumably as a result of having been burned by one too many preachy and ineffective Iraq War-themed films, stayed away from it in droves. However, it will be arriving on DVD on January 12 and if you are one of those who gave it a pass in theaters, you are strongly advised to check it out at home.
4. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (directed by Spike Jonze): 2009 saw the arrival of an unusually strong crop of films aimed at family audiences--why couldn’t my childhood have included a year-long bounty featuring such instant classics as “Coraline,” “Up,” “Ponyo” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox”?--but the best of the bunch was Jonze’ singular take on the Maurice Sendak children’s classic about a young boy (Max Records in one of the great kid performances of recent years) who, following a spell of brattiness, finds himself on a island populated by wild beasts who turn out to be slaves to the same inexplicable emotions that he is going through. Yes, Jonze captured Sendak’s story perfectly from a visual perspective but that was the easy part--what is more impressive is the way that he and co-writer Dave Eggers managed to expand and enhance the admittedly slight narrative in ways that felt perfectly in tune with the original source material. My guess is that years from now, nearly every little kid lucky enough to be taken to see this one will be excitedly screening it for their own children so as to pass down the magic from one generation to the next in the same way that our parents did with the likes of “The Wizard of Oz,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “Duel.”
5. THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (directed by Werner Herzog): When it was announced that always-interesting director Werner Herzog and formerly interesting actor Nicolas Cage were going to team for a new version of Abel Ferrara’s controversial 1992 cop drama, it sounded like an exceptionally perverse joke created by “Cineaste” staffers after a few too many cocktails. Instead, the film--which has nothing to do with Ferrara’s film other than a title and the basic concept of a drugged-out cop doggedly doing his job while struggling with his own considerable demons--turned out to be a one-of-a-kind masterpiece filled with black humor (such as Cage’s memorable pharmacy freak-out and the running gag that develops over his references to someone nicknamed “G“), moving drama (as in Cage’s scenes with Jennifer Coolidge, playing his stepmother who understands what he is going through all too well and the film’s haunting final image) and moments of audacious weirdness that only Herzog would even attempt, let alone pull off (including the now-famous moments involving random iguanas and a break-dancing spirit). This was one of the most defiantly and delightfully strange films to come along in a long time--so much so, in fact, that I suspect that many viewers will be put off by its nutty excesses and write it off as some kind of lurid embarrassment. That would be their loss because this is a bold work from a bold filmmaker and a bold actor whose wild excesses are infinitely more entertaining than the more sedate offerings of the majority of their colleagues.
6. PUBLIC ENEMIES (directed by Michael Mann): I could praise Michael Mann’s epic look at the infamous crime spree of obsessive bandit John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and the equally obsessive pursuit by G-man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to bring him to justice for the fine performances (including the ones from Marion Cotillard as Dillinger‘s girlfriend and Stephen Lang as a take-no-prisoners lawman), electrifying direction and its stunning visual style. However, what impressed me the most is that even though I grew up in Chicago and have therefore heard about these events for as long as I can remember, Mann presents them in such a fascinatingly detailed manner that I always felt as if I was learning new things with each successive scene.
7. TETRO (directed by Francis Ford Coppola): Continuing in the frankly experimental and anti-commercial path that he embarked upon when he returned to the director’s chair a couple of years ago with the woefully underrated “Youth Without Youth,” one of the truly legendary American filmmakers gave us one of the boldest works of a career filled with them--a gorgeously realized meditation on family ties and artistic temperaments about two long-separated brothers (Vincent Gallo and newcomer Alden Ehrenreich) struggling to come to terms with their pasts and futures when one unexpectedly drops in on the other in Argentina during his self-imposed exile from their family. Combining the naked emotionalism and enthusiasm of an ambitious young artist struggling to get everything out at once in case they never get a second chance with the sheer mastery of a veteran in full control of his considerable gifts, this is one of Coppola’s grandest achievements and while it may not have caught on with the public during its brief release earlier this year (handled by Coppola himself), I am confident that as more people become exposed to it, it will be regarded as one of the great films from one of the great filmmakers.
8. UP IN THE AIR (directed by Jason Reitman): Although his first two films, “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno,” indicated that Reitman was one of the more promising of the new American directors, this beautifully realized comedy-drama, about a corporate downsizer (George Clooney in one of his best performances) whose hermetically sealed world, in which frequent-flyer miles and hotel minibars take precedence over emotional ties, is shaken up by two women, a fellow traveler (Vera Farmiga) who is pretty much him in a skirt and a younger work colleague (Anna Kendrick) whose new innovation ironically puts his own comfortable job (and its accoutrements) in jeopardy, effective launched him into the ranks of the top filmmakers working today. Based on the success of his previous films, the fact that Reitman is able to wring enormous laughs from such theoretically unpalatable material isn’t especially surprising but this is much more than just a comedy--it is a snapshot of a certain point in time in American history that is as finely detailed as any documentary, a subtle and nuanced character study of a person who finds himself unexpectedly reacquainted with his basic humanity long after he thought he had shut it away and a top-notch social satire that is both cutting and surprisingly humane.
9. THE BOX (directed by Richard Kelly): In the wake of such box-office misfires as “Donnie Darko” (which only became a cult phenomenon when it hit DVD) and “Southland Tales” (a film that I promise you will one day be worshipped like Walt Whitman), it appeared as if Richard Kelly had finally chosen to reign in his typically trippy storytelling style when he signed on to adapt Richard Matheson’s short story morality tale about a financially strapped couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) who are offered a million bucks from a mysterious man (Frank Langella) to press a button in a box--the caveat being that someone unknown to them will die as a result. Not only did this not turn out to be the case, the film turned out to be the most genuinely freaky and surprising studio film of the year--the premise turned out to only the launching pad for a wonderfully hallucinatory narrative filled with one surprise after another--and while it may have failed to connect with a mass audience, it reconfirms Kelly’s place as one of the most inventive new filmmakers of the last decade. (If you are in the mood for another example of wonderfully off-beat and tragically underrated genre material, you should also check out the apocalyptic head-turner “Knowing,” a project that, funnily enough, was once linked to Kelly a few years ago before winding up with the equally ingenious Alex Proyas.)
10. BROKEN EMBRACES (directed by Pedro Almodovar): Although Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has legions of admirers around the world who simply adore his flamboyant filmmaking approach, I have to admit that I have never really responded to much of his earlier efforts. That said, this, coming on the heels of the equally impressive “Volver,” is so good that I am now tempted to revisit those older films in order to see if I might respond to them better than I once did. Almodovar’s story--a convoluted tale in which a once-successful filmmaker (Lluis Homar) reflects back on the production of his last movie and how it went tragically awry when he began a passionate affair with his leading lady (Penelope Cruz) despite her being the mistress of the powerful businessman (Jose Luis Gomez) funding the project--is as self-consciously stylized as his earlier work but the end result is infinitely more interesting and entertaining here than it has been in the past. For one thing, he has finally figured out a way to deploy his more audacious stylistic flourishes--the dual timeline structure, its tendency to veer wildly from comedy to melodrama (sometimes in the same scene) and in-your-face homages to his own films--in ways that accentuate the main story instead of burying it completely. For another, even though the basic plot will seem fairly familiar to most viewers, he invests the material with enough genuine human emotions to serve as an effective counterpoint to the more flamboyant elements on display. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the film once again proves that the combination of Almodovar and Penelope Cruz is one of the most inspired and effective filmmaker-star collaborations in recent memory. Each one seems to bring out the best in the other and the results serve as a reminder (if one is still necessary) that Cruz, in the right hands, can be one of the most powerful actresses around as well as one of the most beautiful. Hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure, this is the work of a masterful filmmaker at the peak of his powers.
The ten runners-up, a collection of films that would have made for a pretty decent Top 10 list had the other films never existed, are as follows:
11. A Perfect Getaway (David Twohy)
12. Up (Pete Doctor and Bob Peterson)
13. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
14. The Informant (Steven Soderbergh)
15. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (Terry Gilliam)
16. Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki)
17. Taken (Pierre Morel)
18. Coraline (Henry Selick)
19. Tyson (James Toback)
20. Nine (Rob Marshall)
Throughout the year, I also enjoyed these films as well (listed more or less in the order that I saw them):
“Azur & Asmar,” “Chandni Chowk to China,” “Outlander,” “My Bloody Valentine 3-D,” “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” “Duplicity,” “I Love You, Man,” “The Great Buck Howard,” “Adventureland,” “Observe and Report,” “State of Play,” “Goodbye Solo,” “Knowing,” “Tokyo Sonata,” “Shall We Kiss,” “Sugar,” “Sita Sings the Blues,” “The Limits of Control,” "The Girlfriend Experience," “Drag Me to Hell,” “Anvil: The Story of Anvil,” “The Brothers Bloom,” Outrage,” “Summer Hours,” “Away We Go,” “Moon,” “Whatever Works,” “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” “(500) Days of Summer,” “Il Divo,” “In The Loop,” “Soul Power,” “Seraphine,” “You, the Living,” “Apres Lui,” “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” “Julie & Julia,” “District 9,” “Aliens in the Attic,” “The Cove,” “Thirst,” “The Beaches of Agnes,” “Lorna’s Silence,” “It Might Get Loud,” “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” “Cold Souls,” “World’s Greatest Dad,” “The September Issue,” “The Invention of Lying,” “Whip It,” “Zombieland,” “An Education,” “Astro Boy,” “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” “The Blind Side,” “Ninja Assassin,” “Invictus,” “The Princess and the Frog,” “Armored,” “Crazy Heart,” “Me and Orson Welles” and “The White Ribbon.”
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originally posted: 01/02/10 05:46:21
last updated: 01/02/10 10:28:12