I’m going to come right out and say that 2009 was a flat out great year for movies. That’s not saying it was perfect, and there was plenty of mediocrity and good, old-fashioned awfulness to go around, especially when it came to blockbuster entertainment, but on the other hand, I can’t remember the last time that so many movies competed to be in my top 10.
There were films that hit cinemas all throughout the year that I would have sworn were going to make it to the end when saw them (Watchmen, The Hurt Locker, Drag Me to Hell), but when it came time to put this list together many of them just ended up falling by the wayside in favor of movies that really hit me where it counted.
Looking back on ’09, I just simply had an outstanding time if I was in a theater. It’s no secret that I’m a giant fan of genre films, and they were simply everywhere this year. Everywhere I looked, an awesome new Horror film (Trick r’ Treat), Martial Arts flick (Ip Man), Action thriller (Taken), Crime picture (Public Enemies) or Sci-Fi movie (Moon) was ready to blow my mind, and directors I’ve loved in the past (Sam Raimi, John Woo, Kathryn Bigelow, Michael Mann, Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron) all brought the thunder this year and reminded me why I decided to be a fan of their work in the first place. If you were looking for quality bad ass cinema, in 2009 your cup indeed runneth over.
It wasn’t just the wily old veterans that got the job done this year either. Some new voices came on the scene that forced us to take notice in 2009, and by the time their next project hits the screen I’m sure they’ll make an even bigger splash then they were able to make during their debuts. I’m pretty certain that the name Neill Blomkamp wasn’t on anyone’s radar prior to this year, but we’re all wishing he’d gotten the chance to do that Halo movie he was working on with Peter Jackson, and I can’t tell you how exciting it was to get blindsided by the awesome projects of directors I’d never really heard of before, such as Ti West, Scott Sanders and Ruben Fleischer.
If we’re lucky, 2010 will be able to keep up the momentum, and or at least make a nice showing of it. With movies like Iron Man 2, Kick Ass, Robin Hood, and The Expendables on the upcoming slate, I couldn’t be more excited, and just like with this past year, I’m sure there’ll be a ton of surprises along the way. If I end up with only half the movies I ended up loving these past 12 months, I’ll be a happy guy.
So without further ado, these are the ten I’d like to remember 2009 by.
10. Black Dynamite
Sure, there were plenty of great comedies that came out this past year, from I Love You, Man to The Hangover, but I don’t think I laughed harder at anything more than I did watching Black Dynamite. Much in the same way I loved Grindhouse, Dynamite kept the laughs coming by bringing out the ridiculous antics of its particular exploitative genre (Blaxploitation), but also acts as a bad ass tribute to the genre that gave us Pam Grier, Isaac Hayes, Jim Brown, and Fred Williamson. Instead of being a straight up spoof, Black Dynamite gives us a pretty accurate representation of the insanity of the genre, and why people found it so appealing in the first place. Nonstop laughs, kung fu, hot ladies and one of the toughest performances of the year from star Michael Jai White made this an easy favorite.
9. (500) Days of Summer
You see how the 500 in the title is in parentheses? I wondered what that meant until I heard the screenwriters of the movie discussing the film on a podcast. During the discussion they said the parentheses were a reference to all those songs, especially from the ‘80s, that used the same technique in their titles, such as Separate Ways (Worlds Apart) from Journey or Simple Minds’ Don’t You (Forget About Me). What I love about this is just how simply it comments on the movie itself, which is not unlike a song so catchy it gets stuck in your head and won’t go away.
The year’s best and most innovative screenplay, (500) Days of Summer looks at the ebb and flow of a relationship in the same way that we would look back on one, at its highest and lowest points, juxtaposed together in a manner that shows love in all its wonderful “cinematic” glory and then the raw coldness that comes with growing distance. This one goes right up there with Annie Hall and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in the category of romantic films that men and women can watch and enjoy equally without shame. A rarity if I’ve ever seen one.
8. House of the Devil
The year’s best Horror film isn’t a splatterfest or a nonstop exercise in grand guignol operatics, but instead simply relies on the greatest asset a film like this can possess; tension. This movie is positively seething with tension for its entire running time, and even though the movie doesn’t get crazy until way into it, you get the feeling it could go off the rails at any time. The closest modern equivalent I’ve ever seen to the type of movie that Roman Polanski was doing in the ‘70s with Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant or other genre staples such as Don’t Look Now, Ti West’s brilliant throwback makes you want to squirm out of your seat as you watch Jocelin Donahue’s poor baby sitter have to spend the night in a house that might be filled with devil worshippers. For fans of classic horror, you couldn’t do better than this movie in ’09.
It’s a testament to just how great 2009 was at the movies that Up is only at #7 on my list, because I flat out love this movie. One of the absolutely best pure entertainments all year, no film brought more genuine emotion and human feeling this year than PIXAR’s latest entry, which continues their perfect record. The first 15 minutes of this movie are filled with so much energy, joy and heartbreak that the film earned instant classic status amongst the studio’s offerings within that short amount of time, and then managed to keep it up by thrilling you with incredible, old school adventure and the potent poignancy of getting old and gaining a family. I don’t know where PIXAR keeps finding its magic, but I hope that their supply of it never ever runs out.
6. Ong Bak 2
Going into Ong Bak 2, I was pretty sure I was going to like it, but I wasn’t sure how it would match up with Tony Jaa’s other recent offerings. 2003’s Ong Bak was a revelation and 2005’s The Protector was almost surreal in how it handled it’s action, pumping up its fight scenes all the way to eleven with Jaa battling giants, whip-wielding transgenders and martial artists of every sort. Surely, there was no way Jaa’s newest film could match the energy of the original and the madness of Jaa’s follow-up.
Man, was I wrong.
Deciding to step into the director’s chair for this one, the pressure got so great for Jaa that he actually had a mental breakdown and halted production as he went out into the jungle for a couple of months to meditate. Now, this kind of situation usually results in one of two things happening; the movie is either a disaster or ends up some kind of masterpiece. Ong Bak 2 ends up the latter in my opinion. In the grand tradition of Apocalypse Now and Apocalypto, Ong Bak 2 is an epic of insanity, with fights galore, but always going that extra step to prove just how crazy the whole thing is. The movie’s revenge plot is pretty standard, but the movie’s set pieces featuring stunt performers and Jaa himself facing off again crocodiles and elephants are anything but routine. Add to the mix sequences against pirates, vampires and an army of ninjas, and you’ve got a movie unlike anything you’ve ever witnessed before. They don’t make them like this anymore, or maybe they never have at all.
5. Red Cliff
John Woo’s return to Asian cinema is bombastic and none-too-subtle, but stands as an absolute triumph for the director. Shown only in a condensed 2 and a half hour version here in the U.S., through the magic of import blu-rays I was able to see the entire two part, five-hour version of this film, and every moment is vintage John Woo. While the setting doesn’t allow for Woo’s two-fisted gunplay, many of the director’s tropes, most importantly copious amounts of slow motion and doves, remain intact. Woo makes a mockery of so-called “action directors” like Michael Bay, giving you clear and concise combat without sacrificing the epic scope or pulse pounding viscera.
What puts this movie on this list though, is when the swords and spears aren’t flying the movie still stays pretty fascinating. Woo goes into detail about battle tactics and strategies, and the melodrama in the film keeps you involved emotionally right up to the very end. With Tony Leung at the forefront, the movie’s cast also makes a terrific showing, with actors such as Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhang Fengyi also doing their part to wow you at every turn. It may not be Hard Boiled or The Killer, but this film announces the return of John Woo, and that’s reason to celebrate.
4. District 9
At the beginning of every year, you know there’s always going to be that movie that’s going to sneak up on you. Sure, you’re ready for the big summer movies or whatever your favorite director has lined up. Then there are those movies like District 9. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who had no idea what they were looking at when the first trailer for the movie came out at the beginning of last summer, and the pseudo-documentary style trailer with the blurred out aliens had us all wondering what we were in for. All we knew was that Peter Jackson was involved and that the director was the guy who was supposed to do the Halo movie before it got canned.
Turns out, if Halo had happened, we probably wouldn’t have gotten this rich, near-masterpiece of a film. Part Robocop and part Children of Men, District 9 is a raw, emotional experience that doesn’t pull any punches in terms of violence or story. Shades of grey are everywhere, from the gun or pen-toting corporate soldiers of weapons manufacturer Multi-National United to our hapless and perhaps racist hero Wikus van de Merwe (the fabulous Sharlto Copley). Wikus is cowardly and selfish, but in him it’s not too difficult to see ourselves, and hopefully District 9 shows us what we could be capable of if pushed to extremes.
Made for a fraction of most Hollywood blockbusters, District 9 brings more thrills and twists than any number of 2012’s and X-Men Origins: Wolverines could ever hope to.
3. Inglourious Basterds
I wonder how many unsuspecting audience members got their minds blown by the end of Quentin Tarantino’s latest opus. The funhouse given to us by QT is a marvelous romp that doesn’t care if you think you know all there is to know about WWII or not. This is the war seen through the eyes of Tarantino the movie lover; equal parts classic macho Action film, French New –wave art film, and giant Spaghetti Western. Like the best of the Spaghetti Westerns, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, the film may play fast and loose with history, and it may take its time getting where it wants to go, but for sheer operatic entertainment value, the movie is difficult to be beaten.
I’m pretty sure Brad Pitt’s Aldo the Apache and Eli Roth’s Bear Jew are going to be characters that will be as indelible to QT’s filmography as Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega and or the Bride from Kill Bill, but like so many war films, Basterds is peppered with great characters outside of its top-lining stars. Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa is the best villain of any movie this year, Mélanie Laurent is a revelation as the revenge seeking Shosanna Dreyfus, and I could go on and on about turns from Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger, and Michael Fassbender. All are packed in this dizzying epic that does what the best of Tarantino has always done, keep you laughing one minute and then on the edge of your seat the next.
2. Star Trek
There’s the simple feeling of joy that comes from breathless adventure when its executed on a expert level. You know the feeling. It’s the one that you get when you sit down and watch Raiders of the Lost Ark or the original Star Wars or The Adventures of Robin Hood. It’s that sort of lighter than air mix of giddy laughs and amazing action that is very rare to come by these days, but somehow J.J. Abrams was able to nail it with Star Trek. It’s actually some sort of miracle that Abrams was able to take the franchise that is synonymous with heavy continuity and extreme science fiction themes, and then make a movie with incredible mass appeal without losing most of those values. To add to the miracles, Abrams took one of the most iconic band of characters in science fiction and successfully recast them, making stars out of Christopher Pine and Zachary Quinto in the process.
With some gutsy story-telling, Star Trek does to Gene Roddenberry’s classic series what Casino Royale was able to do for Bond and Batman Begins was able to do for the Caped Crusader, give Trek a new lease on life without having to submit to the dogma of usual prequel storytelling. With its new alternate time-line and alternate cast, this is Star Trek as Roddenberry intended, filled with endless possibilities and never-ending potential for grand adventure. All ahead, maximum warp.
To be honest, it’s going to be tough to talk about Avatar without it sounding like hyperbole. It’s so often that a movie can’t live up to its reputation, especially when the pre-release buzz about it being revolutionary was almost deafening at times, and with reaction to the trailers and promotion being so mixed. Well put your fears to rest. Avatar not only lives up to its own hype, its gives you a singular experience like no other you could have gotten during 2009 or any other year of this past decade. As a visual effects film, the movie has no equal. In the realm of storytelling, Avatar is a movie that gives you the warm embrace of familiarity in classic story telling form.
Without his presence on the scene for the last thirteen years, James Cameron has been a figure that has come under scrutiny in his time away. Sure, he made the biggest box office success of all time, but where was the genius behind Aliens that pushed visual effects skyward with The Abyss and Terminator 2? Well, I’d say Avatar gives you the best of both worlds when it comes to Cameron; the epic Titanic film maker that gives you a movie on a scale you’ve never seen before, and the director teaching a master class in popular entertainment, with incredible action and effects that absolutely rock your world on a visual level.
Cameron doesn’t give you a paper-cut out of a world, ala Naboo from the Star Wars prequels. His Pandora is an entire eco-system, with plants and animals that seemed to have evolved on this planet for millions of years. Everything from giant panther-like creatures to the smallest insect is accounted for, giving you the feel of an alien planet, but making it as real as possible because of the attention to detail paid to every minute aspect. For those worried about the “cat people” from the trailers, the Na’vi are simply an extension of that eco-system, fitting in perfectly with this luminescent world that James Cameron has given to you, and coming off as even more fleshed out than their human counterparts.
There have been very few times in my life when I just felt overwhelmed by what a movie was giving me. Movies like Apocalypse Now and Return of the King exhaust your resolve as you watch them in the theater because they fill you with such grandeur and emotion that its almost too much to take. That’s what seeing Avatar was like. Moments that are on such an epic scale that its tough for your mind to even wrap your head around them, but then juxtaposed with genuine emotion and beautiful adventure that you can’t help but be involved and transported. The movie is an accomplishment of the sight and of the heart, and at the end of the day, what more could you ask from a movie than that?
Tags: 500 Days of Summer, Avatar, Black Dynamite, District 9, Ong Bak 2, R0BTRAIN’s Bad Ass Cinema, Red Cliff, Star Trek, Up