2009 was a year of many things cinematically. We lost a number of stars, and Patrick Swayze, and saw two sequels edge their way into the “top grossing films of all time” list. It was the end of the decade and yet the best really wasn’t saved for last, as top to bottom this was one of the most mediocre years in recent past.
The quality at the top was still impressive, as the top ten of this year holds up with the rest of the decade, but the sheer volume of awful was significantly higher then normal. There’s a steep drop off after the top fifteen or twenty films of the year. This has been a year with a lot of bad to borderline unwatchable films, much more then normal, as 2009 seemed to be a cinematic enema for Hollywood. All the crap was flushed out this year, hopefully, as a new decade holds a lot of potential. The old guard of Hollywood is leaving or dying, giving way to a new generation of film-makers. Out of the over 140 films I saw this year, ten stood out most.
10. It Might Get Loud
It might get awesome is more like it. In a million years I never thought two documentaries would be on my top 10 of anything but “Top 10 Documentaries” list, but this year had the two best documentaries of the decade. And the weird thing is, as I watch It Might Get Loud again, I keep finding myself being fascinating by these guys when I can’t stand the music of the White Stripes, U2 and mildly tolerate Led Zeppelin. So hearing them play and talk usually wouldn’t interest me, but Davis Guggenheim has crafted a documentary that focuses on two things: the men and their music.
Getting The Edge, Jack White and Jimmy Page in the same room to ostensibly talk about music, Guggenheim combines their jam session with back stories about the three, giving us a completed picture about three master craftsmen. As they discuss their craft, we get insights into how they got where they are. The fascinating thing is when they start playing; seeing masters at work in any profession is always worth it. To see them playing with one another, observing and duplicating from each other, gives you the sort of insight into the art of playing guitar that merely listening to music doesn’t provide.
The Dark Knight elevated the myth of the hero to heights never before seen. Watchmen deconstructs it in a way that tears down the mythos of the hero. Based on the comic book series by Alan Moore, Zach Snyder takes on what has been previously called “unfilmable.” As the world stands on the edge of nuclear war in 1985 America, where history has been changed from the one we live in because of the presence of actual superheroes, the murder of one of them leads to something much more then one man dying. It’s a look at the actualities of the hero, of the damage it leads to the psyche and eliminates how we romanticize about it in the same way Goodfellas took the piss out of the mob that The Godfather had given it.
Watchmen is a cinematic look at what someone who would put on a costume and fight crime would actually be like. They’re damaged people with severe problems that need help, but instead they beat criminals to a bloody pulp. Based off the comic book of the same name, I looked at the film in a way a lot of people can’t: It’s the best possible Watchmen there could’ve been without it being overly long or a 12 hour miniseries. In order to compress the series into something manageable, the essence of the series has been retained while the massive scope of the series has been whittled down to three hours of brilliance. With the best selection music this decade, by far, Watchmen is the film that will be remembered for doing something bold and different with the genre that no other film will ever do: make the hero loathsome.
8. State of Play
Russell Crowe has been in the rare air that few actors have entered for some time now. George Clooney just entered it, Denzel Washington is the modern pioneer of being in it, and Matt Damon is on the cusp of getting into it. It’s the “you know it’s going to be good” air, when an actor has the freedom and ability to make choices and they’re all good ones.
Anytime he’s on the marquee, you know the film’s going to be good. It’s a near automatic that a film with Crowe will be enjoyable, if not good. He’s had a number of classics in the last couple years, with a quick blip (Body of Lies) that was quite good but not quite as good as 3:10 to Yuma, American Gangster, Master & Commander or Cinderella Man. He’s got enough clout that he has his choice of projects, so when Brad Pitt dropped out the only comparable star who isn’t Clooney comes down to one man: The lead singer of The Ordinary Fear of God in his free time, Oscar Winner Russell F’n Crowe.
Based off the BBC serial of the same name, the film follows a reporter (Crowe) investigating a murder and his colleague (Rachel McAdams) investigating the affair of a Congressman (Ben Affleck), finding that both of their stories somehow manage to connect at the highest levels. While not reaching the heights of the serial, if only because of the shortened running time (from six hours to two), it’s a marvelous little film on its own as pointed a commentary about the death of journalism as it is a thriller. The film’s focus is on Crowe and the investigation, as the further he goes the more volatile the story gets.
While it isn’t the BBC serial, which had six hours and a loaded cast, the film is like Watchmen was to the comic book: the best possible version of it while maintaining certain cinematic constraints.
The second of two documentaries, this one was different. I was anticipating this for a long time because ‘Kid Dynamite’ was my childhood hero. So his descent from grace hit me hard, and his continued descent was even worse. Bill Simmons from ESPN.com even coined “The Tyson Zone,” when someone has such a crazy and ridiculous life you’d believe they’d do anything. From breeding unicorns to trying to claim a patent on the hula hoop.
Tyson’s descent was also punctuated by a huge silence from him, as we heard all the bad but never heard him discuss his life in an honest and frank manner. He never really had an opportunity to tell it from his vantage point, either, as all we ever heard and read were commentary pieces from sports writers and pundits. Tyson is Mike Tyson’s story told from the one person with first hand knowledge of it all: “Iron” Mike Tyson.
My pick for the best documentary of the decade, Tyson is an exploration of one of sport’s most intriguing people. Giving him time to explain his perspective on events, and an unusual level of candor, this is a candid look at an athlete never really given one before. Powerful film-making in its absolute simplest form; a man talking about what he did and why he did it, told with a gut-wrenching level of honesty that most figures of his stature never give.
6. Whip It
Who’d have thought Drew Barrymore could direct? I didn’t and Whip It, based off a novel, shows that the star of E.T and burgeoning producer queen knows what she’s doing behind the camera as effectively as she does in front of it. Following the tale of Bliss (Ellen Page) and her self discovery with roller derby, it’s an empowering tale of childhood’s end and the beginnings of adulthood through the eyes of a woman straddling the line between them.
5. Up in the Air
If Jason Reitman wasn’t already the best young director in Hollywood after Juno and Thank you for Smoking, Up in the Air gives him the title outright. He can tell a great story and push a good actor/actress into giving a masterful performance. No one is bad for the son of Ivan Reitman, and now he gets perhaps the performance of a lifetime out of George Clooney.
While this may be the character he was born to play, Reitman brings something out of him besides his smarmy confidence and talent; Clooney isn’t just playing himself anymore, he’s disappearing into a character.
The tale of a corporate downsizer (George Clooney) who finds his jet-setting lifestyle is on the way out as he nears 10 million miles in the air, it’s a marvelous tale of a man who got rid of all his attachments in life discovering a real connection in the midst of actively avoiding it.
4. Inglourious Basterds
QT can do a war film, pure and simple. The tale of an all-Jewish group of soldiers sent behind enemy lines in World War II to kill Nazis, it’d be easy to dismiss this as pure revenge fantasy. And after seeing it three times in theatres, and another half dozen on DVD already, part of its appeal is in the fact that Jews can see a film about WW2 that doesn’t involve the Holocaust. After Defiance, the world was ready for the stories not told already and to eliminate the “Holocaust movie wins” joke from Academy Award betting pools.
And frankly, it was about time a pissed off Jew from Brooklyn (Eli Roth) beat a Nazi to death with a baseball bat because it was the right thing to do.
Take a crazy hillbilly (Brad Pitt) and his group of kosher roughnecks and let them loose in Nazi-occupied France to do one thing and one thing only: terrorize the German Army. With nods to cinema all around, and a side story about a French Jewess who owns a movie theatre, Tarantino shows that when it comes to story-telling he may not be entirely original but he’s way more entertaining when given time and energy to do so.
3. Fantastic Mr. Fox
It’s interesting to see a children’s book adapted into a film, but stop-motion was never so much fun when Wes Anderson gets his hands on it. In a decade when stop-motion has given us some truly great films, the least likely suspect gives us its best.
Taking a unique spin on the tale of a fox (George Clooney) lured back into the life of chicken-thieving, Anderson takes a children’s book and gives it a novel approach: making it accessible to adults. This is a story kids and adults can relate to, as Fox’s continued antics against three rich business owners threaten not only his life but the life of the animals around him.
Smart and intelligent, with shades of Melville thrown in, Fantastic Mr. Fox has an all-star cast to go with a director taking his signature quirkiness to a whole new level.
2. The Hurt Locker
Sometimes it takes a woman to do what a man can’t. And oh boy does she knock it out of the park.
Kathryn Bigelow does what no male director has been able to do and makes an Iraq War film that doesn’t suck. In fact, it’s a masterpiece. Following an Explosive Ordinance Disposal team in Iraq, led by an adrenaline junkie (Jeremy Renner), the film is a series of action pieces that don’t preach about the war itself. It’s about the men in it trying to cope with their existence while doing their jobs.
Bigelow steps away from any sort of political machinations and instead just gives us a balls-out action thriller, focusing on the tour of duty the men face. As the film counts down the days towards rotation back stateside, we get the sense of urgency and danger in their lives as they face various situations of incredible danger.
1. Public Enemies
Martin Scorsese may be acknowledged by some as the master of the American crime film, but it’s hard to argue against Michael Mann for that title with this Depression era gangster film. The end days of the “Public Enemies” era in America, pinned mainly on the death of John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), Public Enemies is a fictionalized look at that era with certain liberties taken with the facts (for dramatic purposes, of course). FBI Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is given one mission: bring Dillinger to justice. Profiling an era long since past, Mann gives us a look at the ascendance of modern techniques of fighting crime and the downfall of the era when criminals could roam free, without federal prosecution. Mann gives us a look at two very different men and their paths towards one another in a violent, bloody conclusion in my hometown of Chicago.