In an effort to catch up on all the stuff I intended do right off the bat in 2010, I’m officially declaring February the new January. And, um, the second week of February is now officially the first. Got that? All of which is to say, here is (finally) my personal list of 25 (okay, 26) favorite films of 2009. (If I’m lucky, I’ll get to my favorite films of the decade before St. Patrick’s Day!)
I still haven’t caught up to everything I wanted to see in 2009—some glaring missing pieces are Big Fan (with Patton Oswalt as an obsessive Giants fan), Red Cliff (John Woo’s epic Chinese historical action film), and The Damned United (about the early-‘70s Leeds United football (soccer) team). Also, I want to see Crazy Heart again before I add it to the list, so let’s just count that one toward 2010 since it’s only now getting a wide release.
Honorable Mention – First, some interesting films from the year I think were underrated, under-seen, I had mixed feelings about but still impressed me, or just deserve yet another mention/plug:
Adventureland – On a second viewing I realized it was more the ‘80s alternative music than the movie that won me over, but it still wins me over–a sweet, sentimental ride, well acted by Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, and Martin Starr. My
original review. Rent
Antichrist – Not an easy sell, and not an easy film to watch, as a damaged couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) try to cope with loss. But despite some art-house pretension and brutal shock value, Lars Van Trier’s deeper, darker ideas and themes about grief, gender, and chaos have stuck with me all winter.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans – Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage’s corrupt-cop boogie is a weird, wild fantasia that turns out at heart to be a terrifically made film. Expect this one to become a cult classic.
The Box – Okay, I admit, I’m just putting Richard Kelly’s brooding sci-fi mind-bender in here to be ornery. But I really did like it a lot more than most critics and audiences, and I hope it gets some sort of redemption on DVD. My original review.
Bronson – Tom Hardy is the new Mad Max and you can get a sneak peak at his crazy, brutal chops in this biopic of Britain’s most violent prisoner. A stylized, almost cartoonish film anchored by Hardy’s mesmerizing performance.
The Informant! – This one baffled me a bit at first in the theater, but has grown on me in subsequent viewings. A tale of corporate espionage, embezzlement and whistle-blowing, I wasn’t initially sure what its point was, but I’ve come to appreciate it’s about the fact that real life doesn’t always have a neat, soapbox point. Or sane heroes. This is what Matt Damon should have gotten his Oscar nom for—he’s fantastically nuanced and strange. (His Supporting Actor nod for Invictus is really just a stand-in for The Informant!, since the Best Actor category was full up.) I’m an unabashed Soderbergh fan and between this, The Girlfriend Experience, and Che, 2009 was a fascinating year for the director. My original review.
Pirate Radio – I adore this film, flaws and all. It’s full of easy clichés and shameless manipulation, but throughout it all the joy and energy of ‘60s Brit rock blasts through. My original review.
The Road – This unrelentingly grim post-apocalyptic fable is not an easy film to “love,” but thanks to compelling performances by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee and the richly bleak visuals and direction by John Hillcoat, it succeeds in grabbing you and holding you. My original review.
Sherlock Holmes – The opposite of some films here, Holmes has slipped a bit in my estimation on repeated viewings. But its core strength remains—the spot-on buddy-banter dynamic between Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. That’s what will bring me back for repeated viewings and has me very hopeful for the sequel. My original review.
Where the Wild Things Are – I still like Spike Jonze’s adaptation, especially its rough and wild look and feel, and the vocal performances of the monsters. But in the end, as wonderful as it all was, it just didn’t get me deep down emotionally the way it seems to have grabbed so many other critics and viewers. My original review.
Special Mention: Passing Strange – This one may not count as a
theatrical film, depending on how you measure such things. Spike
Lee’s video preservation of musician Stew’s autobiographical Broadway musical never had a real theatrical release and so it was
completely off my radar until recently. With a clue as to it’s topic or backstory, I popped it in one Saturday night, wondered what it was all
about for the first few scenes, and then was completely drawn in
and won over. Filled with up-out-of-your seat music and songs, Passing
Strange is part nostalgia over what self-absorbed, pretentious idiots
young artists are, and part exuberant, joyful celebration of just how
exciting it is to be that self-absorbed, pretentious and idiotic.
Follow over the jump for the 10 runners-up and my top five favorite films of 2009.
Avatar – A second viewing last week confirmed and deepened my initial reaction on both sides of the big blue coin: awful dialogue; spotty acting; simplistic, derivative story; unimaginative alien world, but…. Wow, not only does it all look amazing, but when Avatar gets to its climatic battle you’re reminded James Cameron can still direct the hell out of an action scene. A fantastic summer flick that is unfortunately being hailed as something much more important. My original review.
The Brothers Bloom – I’ve pushed this one several times here on redblog, so here’s yet another endorsement: Just a fine bit of whimsy, wonderfully acted and crafted into a little piece of con-artist delight. My original review. Rent at redbox.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs – Likewise, I’ve been an enthusiastic Meatballs supporter all winter. There were other animated films this year that dazzled me (see the next entry and the top five), but this is the one I had the most fun with and will be watching over and over. My original review. Rent at redbox.
Coraline – Darkly beautiful and a stunning demonstration of the seemingly unlimited artistry of stop-motion animation. Not for the younger kids, but an absolute treat for older ones and adults. My original review. Rent at redbox.
The Hurt Locker – It deserves its accolades (and the Oscar, though I still say it won’t get it)—a powerful film that ditches the usual narrative conventions, war-movie clichés and soapboxes to simply focus on what some of the most stressful situations in the world do to the people who charge into them every day. My original review. Rent at redbox.
Moon – You often champion small, quiet, engaging films to no avail, but I’ve been very pleasantly surprised to see that Duncan Jones and Sam Rockwell’s moody little sci-fi meditation has been winning over fans on DVD. Smartly done on a very low budget (that never ever shows) and an acting tour-de-force by Rockwell, it deserves to become a cult classic. My original review. Rent at redbox.
Observe and Report – I’ve said repeatedly that Jody Hill and Seth Rogen’s dark, dark version of Paul Blart: Mall Cop is not for all viewers. Not only is it unrelentingly rude and crude, but at times it seems intent on not being funny. Which makes it even meaner and funnier to me on repeated viewings. My/Erika’s original review. Rent at redbox.
A Serious Man – Several times now, I’ve seen the Coen Brothers’ semi-autobiographical ode to the Mysteries of God, Existence, and Suffering (played out as dark comedy by a suburban Jewish family in late ’60s Minnesota), and I still don’t feel I’ve come close to cracking all its deadpan secrets. But I enjoy trying and look forward to keeping at it.
Up – I love Pixar. We all love Pixar. And this is a nearly perfect Pixar film. So does it make me a bad person to say I’m just getting a little tired of Pixar perfection right now? Wonderful film, but the style and formula is running a wee bit familiar for me these days. A good time for Pixar to go off and shake things up with some truly different stories.
Up in the Air – We know I love Clooney, and he’s great here, as are Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. But Jason Reitman’s direction still feels a little too pat, too cool in its socio-economic observations. The film never really got to me on an emotional level, but I fully admire its acting, writing, and style.
The Top Five: These are the ones I have a feeling I’ll be watching over and over again for years, even decades to come:
5. Fantastic Mr. Fox – I tried to resist the scruffy charms of Wes Anderson’s stop-action film, but to no avail. Repeated viewings with my teenage niece and pre-school-age nephew won me over big. So charming, so sly, so winning. My original review.
4. An Education – One of the best things about this job is that as much as you try to keep up with projects, with what films are garnering buzz, every now and then something sneaks up on you. You sit down to a screening of a film you’ve heard nothing about and whammo, it hits on every cylinder. I’ll be writing more about An Education later, but for now let me say that it is every bit as charming and moving and delightful and emotionally honest as you may have heard, thanks to Lone Scherfig’s near-perfect subtle direction and brilliant performances by Alfred Molina, Peter Sarsgaard, and of course well-deserved Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan.
3. In the Loop – On first viewing I thought this vicious satire of the run-up to an American-pushed Middle-East war mostly appealed to me because of its dazzling display of hilariously inventive swearing. But a second look reminded me just how deadly on-target (and deeply painful) all of its satiric barbs are.
2. Star Trek – No matter how old, cynical and jaded you get, there are still films each year that turn you right back into a gibbering 12-year-old geek. This was simply the most exciting, happy fun I had all year at the theater–maybe in several years. No old-school carping here (okay, maybe a little about how the whole ice planet stuff really derails the film for a few scenes): The casting was perfect, re-booter-in-chief J.J. Abrams nailed the sense of heroic adventure, and that shiny new USS Enterprise is just drool-worthy dazzling. Well, well done, all, and now bring on several more decades of sequels! My original review. Rent at redbox.
1. Inglourious Basterds – Yes, this is Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece. (Okay, I’ll grant you a tie with Pulp Fiction), and the fact that it’s stirred arguments over how it deals with WWII history as a Jewish revenge fantasy only enriches the film for me. I don’t think QT makes mistakes–as much of a cinematic spaz as he can be, I believe he always knows exactly what he’s doing and why. As a result, Inglourious Basterds works for me on every level: as gripping—and amusing–entertainment; as daring, complex film making; as philosophical probing of morality; and as satirical cultural-historical commentary. Not to mention those amazing performances from the likes of Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger, Mélanie Laurent, and yes, even Brad Pitt chawin’ his way through that accent(s). My original review. My DVD follow up. Rent at redbox.