Saturday, January 9, 2010


As Roger Ebert pointed out in his recently posted best of the year/best of the decade piece, his best films are essentially his favorite films, the ones that impacted him personally and emotionally more than any others, and the ones that he sees himself going back too, over and over again, throughout the years. Same goes for me and this list. What follows are my top 10 favorite films from 2009. Are they the best? For me they were. You may not agree. But that's what makes loving and obsessing over movies so much fun...they have the power to inspire passion.

1.) John Hillcoat's The Road

The most powerful film of the year. Viggo Mortensen’s quietly devastating performance as the Father is yet another riveting piece of work from this incredible actor. First time actor Kodi Smit-McPhee holds his own quite admirably as Mortensen’s son; the two of them hit some dramatic high notes of pure emotional intensity and their chemistry as father/son is palpable. Director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall, working from the novel by Cormac McCarthy (haven’t read it…just bought it…), weave a furiously dark tale of survival at the end of the world, without ever resorting to cheap sentimentality as a buffer between all sorts of disturbing (yet thought provoking) narrative content. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s moody score (these are the guys who also scored The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) combines perfectly with the stunningly desolate cinematography by Javier Aguirresarob, and Chris Kennedy’s incredibly detailed (and decrepit) production design truly brings the viewer into this haunting, nightmarish film. I thought about the ending for days; the film ends as it should but it leaves you wondering so many things (in a great way). This is the kind of intensely dark cinema that not a lot of people want to sit through, and I get that. But for me, this is a masterpiece of the first order, and one of the best and most interesting films to deal with the idea of the apocalypse that’s ever been made. I just only wish this film found a larger audience and more support from the company that distributed it. It doesn’t deserve to slip by mostly unnoticed with no end-of-the-year awards heat. It’s a disgrace as far as I’m concerned. I think when a film is as uncompromising with its vision the way The Road is, some people might feel uncomfortable. While I watched, I was constantly asking myself how I would react in the situations that were unfolding on the big screen; what would I do if confronted with these odds? The Road doesn’t offer easy answers. It’s mysterious but accessible, and the way that Hillcoat and Penhall dispense with clues and signs to the who/what/where/when/why of the apocalypse is subtle and eerie. I feel like The Road is set in a future that’s about 10 years further in time than the events in Children of Men; the two movies seem connected in some cosmic way. I loved this film, and I am extremely excited to watch it again and again.

2.) Neill Blomkamp's District 9

I didn’t know what to expect when I sat down to watch District 9, the phenomenally confident debut from co-writer/director Neill Blomkamp. I had read a lot of internet buzz mostly on the geek-sites, and the trailers had definitely piqued my interested. However, I was not prepared to be as blown away as I would become by the end of my first viewing of this sci-fi masterwork; some will call Avatar the best sci-fi movie of the year, but I’d disagree with those people. For me, District 9 got so many things right. It’s a breathless chase movie, a slam-bang action film, a social commentary on race-relations, and a literate, smart, and genuinely surprising piece of real-time science-fiction. The idea is a simple one: an insect-like race of aliens land (for no apparent reason) a massive ship over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, and become stranded. The aliens are forced out of their ship, sent to squalid living camps, and are treated like 8th rate citizens. Actor Sharlto Copley blazes through the film as Wvikus, a government drone working for a mega-corporation assigned to move the aliens from one ghetto to another. Then – something happens (which I won’t spoil), and Wvikus is forced to team up with one of the aliens in order to maintain both of their survival. Wvikus isn’t a likable character, so it’s a testament to Copley’s skill as an actor (and Blomkamp’s skill as a filmmaker) that the audience roots for him. The aliens are amazingly life-like for a film that cost a reported $35 million dollars. Using a clever combination of practical effects and seamless visual ones, District 9 has a quasi-documentary feel thanks to the gritty shaky-cam aesthetic that has been pioneered by guys like Paul Greengrass and Peter Berg. Watching a film about an alien arrival but set in the here-and-now (with the exotic element of South Africa being another plus) is interesting because it forces you to imagine the world we currently inhabit being visited by another race. That’s a topic that I’ve often thought at length about. And because Blomkamp mixes the known buddy-picture format with a statement about personal identity, District 9 becomes all the more subversive. And then there’s the final shot of the film; without spoiling it, I’ll just say that the film ends on an darkly poetic note that feels entirely appropriate. But because this film was produced independently and for such a limited budget, Blomkamp got to make the film he truly wanted – R-rated, violent, mean, and cerebral. District 9 will be a go-to title for me for many years to come.

3.) Michael Mann's Public Enemies

For some reason, there wasn’t enough excitement over Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s intensely realized John Dillinger crime saga. Sure, it got very good reviews (overall) and it did over $200 million worldwide, but I think that if this film had been released in October or November, you might be looking at a sure-fire Oscar contender. Mann has never truly been an Academy favorite (yes, I know The Insider got lots of nominations, but that’s his only film to garner any love from the Academy) and I just don’t understand why. From Heat to the Last of the Mohicans to Ali, he’s shown a strong command of character, action, drama, and story. And he knows how to make smart genre pieces; Collateral and Miami Vice are decade stand-outs. But this austerely serious and sleekly artful gangster movie is unlike any hoodlum film ever made. The film is the story of Dillinger, slickly played by Johnny Depp, and how he was pursued through America’s heartland by dedicated lawman Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) as he robbed every bank in sight. Along the way, Dillinger fell in love with a hot-tempered coat-check girl (the amazing and lovely Marion Cotillard), and the film weaves their romance into the threads of the story. Shot in vibrant and life-like high-def digital by his Heat cinematographer Dante Spinotti, Public Enemies draws the viewer into its world in the same way that Miami Vice did – you smell the smells, hear the sounds, and see the sights. And for me, nobody knows how to craft a better cinematic shoot-out than Mann, and in Public Enemies, he’s got about a half-dozen explosive gun battles that stud the compelling narrative. The highlight of the film from an action stand-point is surely the night-time raid on Dillinger’s Wisconsin cabin hide-out; the flashes of all of the exploding gun barrels combined with the ear-piercing quality of the sound-effects work were some of the most visceral moments of big-screen action in 2009. All of the performances are top-notch (including all of the secondary character actors; Mann gets his “faces” right) and as usual, Mann’s deft screenwriting touch (he co-wrote with Anne Biderman) brings the whole thing together. This is a tight, epically intimate crime study from one of the masters of the genre.
4.) Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker

Tense, riveting and wholly engrossing, Kathryn Bigelow’s triumphant Iraq war thriller The Hurt Locker is unquestionably the best movie that’s come out of Hollywood to center on the current war in the Middle East. I hesitate to call The Hurt Locker a war film in the traditional sense; it’s more a study of machismo and the codes of manliness that live and breathe within a platoon of soldiers. The Hurt Locker’s semi-cryptic title is really a metaphor for the amount a pain that one soldier can possible endure (at least that’s the way I interpreted it). And considering that the soldiers featured in The Hurt Locker are charged with disarming side-of-the-road I.E.D.’s and car-bombs, pain isn’t really the question – death is what’s top of mind. And that’s the driving force of the film – the constant sense that death is lurking around the corner. In a star-making lead performance, Jeremy Renner plays a soldier so intent on disarming as many bombs as possible that he’s basically forgotten how dangerous his job really is. Or maybe he hasn’t forgotten – maybe he just doesn’t care. Maybe…just maybe…he actually enjoys it. The adrenalin rushes felt by the characters are also felt by the audience, due in no small part to Bigelow and co-writer Mark Boal’s tight, clean screenplay, and the un-CGI’d camerawork by Barry Ackroyd (United 93). The Hurt Locker is probably Bigelow’s best film (Strange Days still remains her most ambitious), and it’s her best film because of how intently she stays on target with her story and with her direction of action. There is a forceful, you-are-there-now quality to the action scenes in The Hurt Locker; it’s the film to come as close to parts of Black Hawk Down in terms of sustained intensity. Always considered to be a highly visual, sexily kinetic filmmaker, Bigelow has had her ups and downs within the Hollywood system, so it’s especially awesome to see her back in perfect form, and firing on all cylinders. All of the supporting players are excellent, and look out for Guy Pearce and David Morse, both of whom make memorable cameos. This is a powerful, white-knuckle piece of filmmaking.
5.) Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are

How the hell did Spike Jonze get away with making Where the Wild Things Are the way he did? Essentially a big-budget art film with disarmingly interesting uses of special effects, Where the Wild Things Are is, like The Road, an entirely uncompromising vision. You never feel like punches have been pulled in any department of the creative process. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this movie could’ve been a total disaster. Instead, what Jonze has created can be classified as one of the best movies for children – and most importantly – about children, ever made. Jonze, along with co-screenwriter Dave Eggers (Away We Go), enter the mind of young Max (the hero of Maurice Sendak’s classic book of the same name), and go to some pretty dark places. The movie is one gigantic metaphor for lost childhood, and how the power of parental divorce can destroy a fragile child’s psyche. The gigantic and amazing looking creatures are just icing on the cake. The littlest viewers will find them cute (and maybe a little scary) but anyone who appreciates the art of filmmaking and creature creation will simply marvel at their design and construction. Instead of going all-CGI with the Wild Things, Jonze decided to go man-in-suit, and then use CGI to effortlessly convey lip and eye movement. The results are beguiling; the Wild Things are some of the most distinctive fantasy creatures to ever grace the silver screen. Lance Acord’s majestic, hand-held cinematography is aces, giving the movie a gritty but beautiful atmosphere and tone. And Max Records, who plays the troubled Max, is clearly destined for more work – he’s got a graceful cinematic presence that really played into the ideas that the filmmakers pumped into the story. Keep in mind – this is a 90 minute movie which is based on a short picture book. Where the Wild Things Are the movie is definitely different than Where the Wild Things Are the book. Sure, the movie has retained the spirit and basics from the book, but the movie is far richer, far more layered that Sendak’s original effort. Make no mistake – in no way am I slamming the original source material. It’s one of my all-time favorite works of fiction and it was a staple of my childhood. I just find it incredible that after so many years of dreaming of the land of the Wild Things in my own head as a kid, I’ve finally been able to see a filmmaker capture that world on the big screen.

6.) Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man

A Serious Man could have been called A Private Man. Because that’s what this film is – private. It’s the sort of movie that only gets made by a powerful entity, in this case, the Coen brothers. Hot off the Oscar success of No Country for Old Men and the commercial success of Burn After Reading, the Coens have gone slightly Barton Fink on their fans with their latest effort, A Serious Man, which for me, is probably the best movie to deal with the modern Jewish-American experience, with the possible exception of Barry Levinson’s touching family drama Avalon. A Serious Man is about that – a serious man – a college professor named Larry Gopnik (the brilliant Michael Stuhlbargh) who has a lot of personal issues to tend too. His wife is leaving him for a man he’s sort of friends with, his stoner son is getting ready for his Bar Mitzvah and he’s not really taking it seriously, he’s up for tenure at his college but a conniving student might be up to something to prevent that tenure, and his sloppy brother is living on his couch. Oh, and let’s not forget the pot-smoking and frequently nude-while-sunbathing next door neighbor who might just have a thing for Larry. This movie is funny, but sometimes not in a cheap, laugh-out-loud way. It’s uncomfortable humor, the kind of humor that Larry David would just love. Just like every Coen brother film, I expect this one to get better and better upon repeated viewings. It’s very specific, just like all other Coen efforts, and for some people, it’s going to be emotionally inaccessible for some people. The film marks yet another striking collaboration between the Coens and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins; they seem unbelievably in synch as a creative entity. A Serious Man asks questions of faith, of moral compass, and of familial obligation, and it’s all done with a misanthropic sense of deranged glee, so sometimes it’s tough to exactly know what the Coens might be trying to say. That’s a quality, in my estimation, of great storytelling. Great art needs to be considered; it needs to be re-examined and discussed. Which leads me to the final image of the film – if there was ever a whammy in the making, it’s the one that closes this diseased comedy. There’s a particular, blackly-comic world-view that the Coens subscribe too, and I know that it rubs some people the wrong way. But for fans of this brazenly unique filmmaking duo, A Serious Man will probably rank as one of their best films to date.

7.) Jason Reitman's Up in the Air

I am not sure if I’ve ever seen a film so in tune with where society is currently resting at. Up in the Air is the third (and best) film from writer/director Jason Reitman, and at this rate, he’s going to have himself a hell of a career. Not just a slick George Clooney vehicle like some people may think, Up in the Air is a slyly dark study of a man so estranged from the art of personal relationships that it’s a wonder he’s able to function at all. Bingham works for a company who gets hired by other companies to handle mass firings; he’s a corporate dismantler. Because of our current real-word economic climate, the narrative of Up in the Air feels especially important and relevant. Bingham just sees what he does as a job; he keeps his emotions of out of the equation. He’s old-school about it in that he feels people should be told to their face that they’re losing their job. His methods are challenged by an eager-beaver go-getter named Natalie, wonderfully played by Anna Kendrick, who thinks that firing people via video conference is the better, easier, cheaper way to go. Vera Farmiga (excellent as always) is the business woman that Bingham meets and falls in love with – but will he change is life for her? Up in the Air moves gracefully throughout its run time, thanks to the sexy chemistry that Clooney and Farmiga share, the sharp interplay between Clooney and Kendrick, and the breezy visual style of Reitman and cinematographer Eric Steelberg. And the script, based on a novel by Reitman and Sheldon Turner, dishes out a few surprises towards the end that put a lot of things into new perspective. The snappy banter between Clooney and Farmiga is also a major plus. Up in the Air is a witty film, both verbally and visually, and it’s clear to me that Reitman is a filmmaker who values all aspects of his craft when it comes to constructing a sequence. A timely film, a smart film, and finally, a hugely entertaining film, Up in the Air is the sort of classy, adult-minded film that works both as keen social commentary and pure entertainment.

8.) Pete Docter's Up

The latest gem from Pixar, Up is all the things that great films are – sad, funny, heart-warming, exciting, and by the end, totally moving. It’s a film that’s about never letting go of your dreams, no matter how out of reach they may seem. There’s a sense of adventure in Up that’s infectious. The story is simple: Karl Fredricksen, an old, widowed man doesn’t want to loose his beloved house to urban development, so he tethers about 100,000 balloons to it in order to fly away to a far-away island where he and his wife always wanted to visit. The catch – the old man has a surprise companion, in the form of a tubby Eagle Scout named Russell, who just so happened to be on his doorstep before the house too flight. Up becomes a buddy picture of sorts, with the old man learning from the little kid, and vice versa. Visual and verbal humor is on display in almost every scene, and director Pete Docter’s elegant gift with movement, color, and visual and narrative sweep is in clear view. The mostly silent wedding/marriage montage that opens the film is a tour de force of visual storytelling and easily one of the most captivating sequences of the year. I was a teary-eyed mess while watching this touching five minute prologue during my first viewing. If you’ve ever loved someone, there are elements of Up that will remind you of why we do in fact love other people. After Wall*E, I was sure that Pixar had peaked. I was wrong. How will the outdo themselves next time?

9.) Jody Hill's Observe and Report

This is a deranged comedy. A ballsy comedy. A comedy with zero rules. It's unhinged. It's got no moral center. Some people will hate this film. Others, like me, will positively love it. While it does have some Taxi Driver-ish moments, this film is not on the same level as Martin Scorsese’s urban nightmare masterpiece. It doesn’t really aspire to be; they’re very different films at their core. Observe and Report is a dangerous comedy made by a dangerous new voice in cinematic comedy – writer/director Jody Hill. Hill, who also directed the nastily funny The Foot Fist Way and had a hand in creating the ball-bustingly funny HBO show Eastbound and Down, has a very particular way with his comedy – he likes it to be bruising, scarring, and darkly hilarious. Observe and Report confidently straddles tones throughout its relatively brief running time, resulting in a movie that feels very distinctive, very fresh. Some people might think it’s a confused work. I happen to think that the film’s narrative follows a deceptively brilliant trajectory. Given that the main character, a sociopathic mall security guard named Ronnie Barnhart (Seth Rogen in his finest screen performance), is a guy suffering from bi-polar disorder who voluntarily stops taking his medication after a serial pervert starts terrorizing his mall, the film sort of has the right to juggle multiple personalities of tone. There is a lot of morally questionable content in this film, and the more puritanical viewer might be offended. Anna Faris annhilates her role as the slutty, boozy cosmetics girl that Ronnie falls for; she's one of the funniest people living at the moment. There is graphic violence, graphic nudity, and a general sense of crazy-eyed lunacy that runs throughout this movie. And then there’s the finale, a finale that truly has to be seen to be believed. Hill’s inspired musical selections also contribute big time to the film, as do his choice of supporting actors (Jesse Plemmons, Patton Oswalt, and Aziz Ansari are all hilarious). I haven’t seen a studio comedy more bracing and fresh than Observe and Report in a long, long time. The Hangover? Sure…it’s a very funny movie…but it’s safe…it’s got nothing on Observe and Report. See it at your own risk…

10.) James Cameron's Avatar

One of the finest technical achievements every considered by a filmmaker, James Cameron effectively bitch-slaps almost all other working action directors with this beast of a sci-fi epic. At this point, nobody needs a run down of the story. The film is, in essence, The New World by way of Dances with Wolves with a lot of Iraq/Vietnam war comments thrown in for good measure. It’s also got a pro-environment, anti-government/corporation slant that’s interesting to ponder. Cameron, who has a fondness for mixing the heady with the eye-catching (T2, The Abyss), unleashes his fiery special effects arsenal during the last hour of Avatar, and the results are nothing less than breathtaking. The 3-D effect hasn’t been used as a gimmick; instead, the 3-D technology enhances the viewers depth of field, and allows the all-CGI environment (which looks completely lifelike about 99% of the time) to feel that much more tangible and all-encompassing. I’d be curious to see how the film plays in 2-D on the big screen; I’ve heard that the colors pop even more due to 3-D screenings needing to be projected at a darker light level to compensate for the 3-D effect. Regardless, the film is as stunning as everyone has said it is; much like Cameron’s last film, Titanic, Avatar is a quintessential “big-screen movie.” If you have even a passing interest in the project, definitely see it on the biggest screen possible, because it will not be the same on Blu Ray (no matter how nice it will inevitably look). And even if I predicted almost every story beat (which I did), the narrative holds up well and is told in a lickety-split manner, which sort of defies the extra-long run-time (2 hours 40 minutes). Rarely has an epic blockbuster breezed by this quickly while unfolding on the big screen. At the end of the day, to not see this movie in its 3-D format would be a dismissal of the next revolution in movie going. Cameron creates spectacle in a way that few other filmmakers are currently doing; I’d say that Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg (when he wants) are the other current masters of the extra-large production. And while I prefer Bay’s visual mania to the more classically minded stylings of Cameron, there’s no doubt that Cameron understands how to balance gargantuan set-pieces with solid storytelling, which has the power to blow your mind.

The Best of the Rest (in order of preference):

Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah
Zack Snyder’s Watchmen
Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!
Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck’s Sugar
Ramin Bahrani’s Good Bye Solo
Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol
Henry Selick’s Coraline
Bobcat Goldthwait’s World’s Greatest Dad
Todd Philips’ The Hangover
Tony Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 123
JJ Abrams’ Star Trek
Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer
Nancy Meyers’ It’s Complicated
Jim Sheridan’s Brothers
James Gray’s Two Lovers
Sam Mendes’ Away We Go
Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre
Rob Marshall’s Nine
Alastair Fothergill’s Earth
Mike Judge’s Extract
Neveldine/Taylor’s Crank: High Voltage
Larry Charles’ Bruno
Kevin McDonald’s State of Play
Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds
Mark Duplas’ Humpday
Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia
Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience
Hitoshi Matsumoto’s Big Man Japan
Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare At Goats
John Hamburg’s I Love You, Man
Greg Mottola’s Adventureland


Joel said...

It may change Tuesday, when I rent "The Hurt Locker" finally, but here's my top ten so far, with runners-up:

1. Lee Daniels's Precious
2. Jason Reitman's Up in the Air
3. Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are
4. Neill Blomkamp's District 9
5. James Cameron's Avatar
6. J.J. Abrams's Star Trek
7. Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox
8. Marc Webb's (500) Days of Summer
9. Lone Scherfig's An Education
10. Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds

Runners-up: Paranormal Activity, The Informant!, Up, Watchmen, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Julie & Julia, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Coraline, Gamer, Knowing, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, My Sister's Keeper, Zombieland, The Soloist, 2012, Sherlock Holmes, Drag Me to Hell, A Christmas Carol, Whip It, Taken, The Brothers Bloom, It's Complicated, Monsters vs. Aliens, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, G-Force

And for the record, my bottom 5 of the year:

1. Walt Becker's Old Dogs
2. Brad Silberling's Land of the Lost
3. McG's Terminator Salvation
4. Betty Thomas' "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel"
5. Shane Acker's "9"

Joel said...

Yep, my list changed. I'd knock "Inglourious Basterds" off the list and put "The Hurt Locker" at #5. Stunning directorial effort above everything else. Renner was a revelation, but so were the other actors. Absolutely loved every minute. And that sniper showdown is the best shootout of 2009.

Actionman said...

Yeah -- I knew you'd love The Hurt Locker. My blu ray is on it's way from Amazon (along with Moon -- in a rare move, I purchased a film before I've ever seen it...)

Very solid list for your favorites from 2009. I am really pissed I missed Fantastic Mr. Fox and An Education. I might catch Precious in a few weeks when it plays at a local college theater.

Doug Cooper said...

Kind of a down year I thought. What'd you think Nick?

Here's my list...

1. Avatar
2. In the Loop
3. The Fantastic Mr. Fox
4. Where the Wild Things Are
5. The Informant!
6. The Hangover
7. Up in the Air
8. The Soloist
9. Star Trek
10. Zombieland

H.M.: Adventureland, The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, Up and Watchmen

No movies this year where I left feeling like I had just seen something truly amazing, which is why I had to go with Avatar. A lot of it might have been spectacle, but sometimes that's enough. Plus, I've never wanted to hook up with an alien chick before, so there's that...