Summing up a year with a ten-best list is never easy, especially in a year like 2009. Financially, this was a stupendous year for movies. But that in no way means it was a year for great cinema.
Entertainment value was a big seller in a year where millions wanted to put their troubles at ease for at least a few hours. This explains the early successes of Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Liam Neeson’s Taken in a month – January – that is usually a bad month for new releases. While sequels to Transformers and Harry Potter were breaking records for sequels, I watched Moon and other movies that probably couldn’t cover the catering costs of a Jerry Bruckheimer production.
2009 was also a year for remembrance with the loss of such venerable talents as Patrick McGoohan, Ricardo Montalban, Farrah Fawcett, Bea Arthur, Karl Malden, Edward Woodward, and Natasha Richardson. But the two that probably affected me the most this year was the loss of Patrick Swayze and writer-director John Hughes. Swayze should have been one of the biggest actors in the world, but after the monster success of Dirty Dancing he was heavily typecast. But at least he gave us such guilty pleasures as Road House and Point Break. And guys who get flack from watching Ghost and liking it, don’t worry your man card is safe.
And as for John Hughes, what can you say. His films defined a generation of teens in middle-class suburbia. The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off are classic teen comedies, and his Planes, Trains & Automobiles is the perfect grown-up buddy comedy about Thanksgiving. His comedies are endlessly quotable and would serve as inspiration for a new generation of filmmakers, including Kevin Smith and Jason Reitman.
Having seen somewhere between 150 and 160 new releases this year, a majority of them were just bad – so many failed to cross my “average” meter. But since it was a year where the audience demanded an escape, I can understand the low output of quality flicks. But even through the murkiness of crap-infested cineplexes I have come up with a list of ten that made quite an impression on me.
10. An Education
Going into the screening of An Education all I knew was that Nick Hornby, author of such novels as High Fidelity and About a Boy, penned the screenplay. But as I left the theater, I knew I had witnessed the beginnings of an incredible new talent.
Carey Mulligan is this year’s Amy Adams, a newcomer that makes you want to sit up and take notice. She gives a star-making performance as Jenny, a 16-year-old girl growing up in 1961 London. It isn’t just her performance that makes An Education such an excellent movie. She has help in the form of Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, and even Emma Thompson in a brief but ever-so-memorable scene. Highlighted by an ear-pleasing soundtrack (like Beth Rowley’s “You’ve Got Me Wrapped Around Your Little Finger”) this “inspired by a true story” story isn’t schmaltzy like Julie & Julia or as lackluster as Amelia. It’s a character drama and a delightful one at that.
9. Star Trek
Upon its release I said Star Trek was “two hours of fun and excitement” and that “you don’t have to be a Trekkie to enjoy [the] reboot.” Watching it again on Blu-ray, I stand by that assessment. It makes me feel like a kid again, like when I first saw Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or Ghostbusters. A perfect blend of action, science fiction and comedy, J.J. Abrams (Mission: Impossible III) has made a souped-up version of Star Trek for a brand-new audience that will also appease the old fans. It’s a roller-coaster ride; one of the few good ones in a summer that was partly defined by overbloated sequels and bad comedy vehicles starring Jack Black and Will Ferrell. This summer was more about creating new stars than relying on the bankability of stars from the early part of the decade. Which explains why Chris Pine, who plays Capt. Kirk, has seen his stock rise because of the film’s success.
8. District 9
As a mainstream science-fiction film, Neill Blomkamp’s directorial debut is both an insightful film and an action spectacle. The film is an allegory about South Africa’s problems with segregation, only this time told with aliens. The aliens come to Earth not to destroy or enslave, simply because. And now they’re stuck. Presented as a faux documentary at first before becoming a straight narrative, Blomkamp’s film has a slow-build before turning into a full-tilt action film in the third act, with plenty of bloody violence and characters being liquefied. Outside of the special effects and action, keep an eye on Sharlto Copley, a first-timer to acting, and the physical and emotional transformation he goes through. As provocative as it is exciting.
It seems that a year doesn’t go by where I’m not praising a Pixar film. 2009 was such a remarkable year for animation that I would be remiss to not at least acknowledge Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. But there’s just something about seeing a wilderness scout befriend an octogenarian. In a day where moral fiber is low and “respect your elders” is passé, Up is an animated adventure with an unlikely pair. The opening fifteen minutes is an emotional drain on the viewer and leaves a lasting impression (I dare you to not tear up just a little), but it is the characterizations of Carl Frederickson (voiced by Ed Asner) and his sidekick Russell that make Pete Docter’s film a winner that will truly resonant with audiences young and old. You may even want to go find your own adventure after watching this.
Did I say 2009 was such a remarkable year for animation? I better amend that to include science-fiction films as well. Whereas District 9 was mainstream, Moon is a little-seen independent sci-fi venture by newcomer Duncan Jones. It is not just one of the best films I’ve seen this year, it’s one of the best science-fiction films I’ve seen this decade. We’re talking top ten material. Not divulging too much about the plot, I’ll just say that Sam Rockwell takes huge steps in showing that he’s an actor deserving of more projects. Moon is seemingly a one-man show with Rockwell as the starring act. The film is thought provoking and one driven by thoughts and emotions – not actions. And since many probably missed it in theaters, make a point of seeing it on DVD or Blu-ray. You’ll thank me later.
He’s back! That’s right, James Cameron proves with Avatar that his “King of the World” statement at the Oscars more than a decade ago was not a misnomer. While other filmmakers dream big, Cameron does big. It’s his first feature film since Titanic and with it he shows he hasn’t lost a step. This is a director who has had a profound influence on special effects (see Terminator 2: Judgment Day). What he’s done with Avatar is change how we will forever look at film. This impact alone makes the film worthy of Top 10 consideration. But it is difficult to distinguish between the experience of watching the film and the quality as a whole. While the technology Cameron uses is revolutionary, the story told is not all that new. But Cameron tells the story remarkably well. The more I watched, the more I cared about the characters and their world. I actually began thinking what the vegetation and air quality was like on Pandora. How often does that happen when you watch a film, where you begin wondering about little details like that?
4. Inglourious Basterds
Inglourious Basterds has resided somewhere in my top 5 ever since I first saw it back in August. It is Quentin Tarantino’s most satisfying film overall since Jackie Brown, and one that should be slotted next to his Pulp Fiction and given the distinction of masterpiece. For this one-time video store clerk many moons ago, Tarantino’s knowledge on all things cinema is legendary. Which probably explains why the opening to Basterds is one of single-best scenes you’ll ever see. Not just this year, I’m talking all time. Those who have ever seen a Sergio Leone spaghetti western with those long, drawn out sequences, you’ll understand. Oh, and because of Brad Pitt I will forever mispronounce the words “Nazis” and “bon journo.”
3. (500) Days of Summer
Here comes a film that goes by a different beat of the romantic-comedy drum. (500) Days of Summer is a serio-romantic comedy and is a nice elixir to the pipe-dream romances churned out by the studios each year. The story is told in a non-linear manner and from the male perspective. Why it works as well as it does is because of a well-written script, which is honest and quirky, fun and everlasting – even if love isn’t always meant to last – and the collective efforts of the stars (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel) and director Marc Webb. Anytime you can reference Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and have a dance number set to the tune of Hall & Oates (and not be inclined to roll your eyes at the absurdness), then you know you’ve made something special.
2. The Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow may not be an upper-echelon director but she could be. Her body of work is small compared to other filmmakers, having only made eight films over the course of twenty-seven years. But it is impressive that of all the films about the war in Iraq, hers is the biggest success. The Hurt Locker doesn’t appeal to a particular political base, and it keeps the action on the front line, not in Washington. Of all the horror films and scarefests released this year, this by far was the most thrilling. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, knowing little about the film before watching it. Though, The Hurt Locker is more than thrills. Jeremy Renner’s portrayal as a bomb disposal expert provides much insight in the human psyche during wartime. He along with the rest of his team undergoes much stress, and we witness this stress with each new bomb disposal opportunity. Bigelow’s film is raw and visceral thanks in large part to Barry Ackroyd’s (United 93) cinematography. Paired with her direction we get a microcosm perspective making Locker that much more exhilarating to watch.
1. Up in the Air
Jason Reitman is the best young director in Hollywood. There, I said it. Starting with Thank You for Smoking and continuing with Juno, Reitman has demonstrated growth. With Up in the Air, the director has entered a new realm: auteur. Comparing it to his two previous works, you can see Reitman all over this. Not just in the direction, but also in the writing and the acting. George Clooney has never been better and Reitman harnesses Clooney’s effervescent charm and channels it in the character or Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizer who has racked up nearly ten million miles. As someone who thinks about the importance of cinema and how the films of today will be looked at in the years to come, I can with utmost certainty say that Up in the Air will be there. When people want a window perspective of what life was like in 2009, this is the film. It is commentary on how society is regressing as far as the economy is concerned, but Reitman’s film is also part character study and part romantic comedy (the kind like Preston Sturgess used to make). And just when you think the film is going to have a Frank Capra-esque ending, Reitman pulls the rug and leaves everything up in the air.
Tags: 500 Days of Summer, An Education, Avatar, District 9, George Clooney, Inglourious Basterds, James Cameron, Jason Reitman, Kathryn Bigelow, Moon, Neill Blomkamp, Pixar, Quentin Tarantino, Sam Rockwell, Star Trek, The Hurt Locker, Up, up in the air