Monday, February 15, 2010

The Best of 2009, Part 1: Top 10 List, Zen Awards

It's that time again, folks. I know this feels a bit delayed, but I was trying to wait to compile any year-end lists until I had caught up on all the 2009 movies I had missed. Well, the hell with that. So, when reading these lists, bear in mind that I haven't seen The Messenger, The Last Station, In the Loop, Coco Avant Chanel, A Prophet, The Cove, and plenty of other worthy films. But, y'know, you gotta start sometime. I'll be doing this piece all week: Today, top 10 list. Tomorrow (schedule permitting), Acting. Wednesday, directing and screenplays. Thursday, technical achievements. Friday, my unofficial Oscar Ballot. Days are subject to change, depending on scheduling conflicts, lack of planning, and general laziness. Anywho, without further ado:

The Best Films of 2009

Screw a top 10 list. Too much exclusion. I'm an inclusive kind of person: I'm going to give y'all a top 20, plus some honorable mentions. Aren't I generous?

Honorable Mentions
These films fought to break the top 20, but ultimately failed. I still hold a place in my heart for them, however. In alphabetical order:
The Hangover
The Road
A Serious Man

Next time, guys. Moving on:

20. The Lovely Bones
Directed by Peter Jackson.
I acknowledge that this is a very flawed film. Many of its elements don't fit together, quite a few of the performances are misguided or just plain wrong, and the visual effects tend to crowd out the plot. Still, for whatever reason, I can't let this movie go. It's flawed, but haunting. I might honestly only have it in the top 20 for one scene (the scene in which Susie meets the other victims of George Harvey in Heaven), which, frankly, reduced this writer to something nearing tears.

19. Whip It
Directed by Drew Barrymore
Not a great movie, but it's sure as hell a fun one. Ellen Page gives a wonderful performance, leading a fantastic ensemble. The script is literate, witty, and the film never feels too long.

18. District 9
Directed by Neil Blomkamp
District 9 has grown on me. Sure, its allegory is a little heavy-handed, but the film-making on display is both kinetic and absorbing. Special mention must go to actor Sharlto Copley for making Wikus Van der Merwe a completely believable, thoroughly engrossing character.

17. Julie and Julia
Directed by Nora Ephron
Meryl Streep pulls Julie and Julia across the finish line with far more panache than the movie has any right to claim. The scenes with Amy Adams can be a bit dull, but Streep's performance is like injecting joy right into your eyeballs.

16. Zombieland
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Call me a bit of a populist. I'm sure I'll catch some heat for placing this zom-com over other, nobler, more prestigious films, but what can I say? I have a soft spot for the living dead. This film isn't quite as witty or well-made as Shaun of the Dead, but it's well worth the admission price anyway.

15.Star Trek
Directed by J.J. Abrams
I was a complete non-Trekkie going into this movie; indeed, it was the first Star Trek movie I'd ever seen. In my capacity as a Star Trek noobie, I can say with confidence that Abrams' film is instantly accessible, ridiculously entertaining, and wonderfully well-made. This is blockbuster entertainment at its best.

14. The Princess and the Frog
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
What a great throwback to the Disney Golden Age. This hand-drawn tale of self-discovery is unusually perceptive and intelligent for a new Disney movie. It effortlessly combines great musical numbers, somewhat bizarre humor, and quiet reality to form a near-perfect concoction.

13. An Education
Directed by Lone Scherfig
Scherfig's coming-of-age film is light, frothy, and endlessly charming. Carey Mulligan's star-making performance as Jennie provides the rock to which all other aspects of the film anchor. An Education is fun, smart, and, you guessed it, educational.

12. Moon
Directed by Duncan Jones
I feel a little guilty about not putting Moon in my Top 10, but that's how it goes, I suppose. The fact that this is director Jones' debut is astounding. Even more astounding is how small a budget (comparatively speaking) this film was made with, because it looks absolutely stunning. The visuals are creative and striking, the acting is fantastic (there's really only one performance in the film, and it's worth watching for two hours), and the story is both inventive and entertaining. Moon is destined to become one of the hallmark films of independent sci-fi cinema.

(I'll have you know that films 8-11 were almost impossible to put in order. Ask me tomorrow, and it could very well change. I agonized for hours...Well, maybe only minutes, but the point is I agonized over this.)

11. Up in the Air
Directed by Jason Reitman
I think Reitman's film might have suffered slightly from the massive hype it received on the Internet during its film festival run. Bloggers called it a lock to win Best Picture, writers fell over themselves trying to come up with better puns involving airlines and the zeitgeist. Up in the Air may not be the best film of the year, but it a great one. The film walks a fine, fine line between comedy and drama, and doesn't make a single mis-step. This balancing act would have been impossible without the stellar acting turns of George Clooney and Anna Kendrick, who are more than competently supported by Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman, JK Simmons, and others.

Here come the top 10...Drum-roll, please!

10. The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Directed by Wes Anderson
I'm not usually a fan of Mr. Anderson's work, but his relentlessly quirky style is a beautiful fit for Roald Dahl's sideways prose. The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a technical marvel, and is also one of the most, if not the most entertaining film of the year. What's more, the film manages to illicit real emotional responses, all on behalf of this adorable community of woodland creatures. The script pops with sly humor, while making use of allegory/nuance in a much more subtle way than many of the bigger films this year. The wonderful dialogue and voice-over work is supplemented by Alexandre Desplat's playful, mildly ridiculous music. As the crowning stroke of genius, The Fantastic Mr. Fox skips playfully through genre after genre, touching on war film, 40s caper, film noir, and western before settling on something completely undefinable.

9. A Single Man
Directed by Tom Ford
A Single Man is nothing if not stylish. Fashion Designer-turned-Director Tom Ford throws every cinematic trick in the book at this movie, yet, against all odds, manages to produce a singularly affecting film whose stylistic flourishes serve to enhance the plot. The film is designed to a T: production design, costumes, cinematography, editing, music: all are immaculate, almost anal-retentive in their perfection. This would only amount to a whole lot of pretty nothing, however, if it weren't for an insightful script, as well as the virtuoso performance of Colin Firth. His character, George Falconer, is one of the great portrayals in cinema this year. The imagery is almost unimaginably gorgeous, as is the music: One could almost call this film hypnotic; it's easy to be mesmerized by the film's beguiling beauty.

8. Precious
Directed by Lee Daniels
I have complaints with elements around the edges of the film; little pieces of direction, a mis-step here or there. All of those are completely eclipsed, however, by the perfect storm of acting perfection created by Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique. Who'd have thought that a first-time actress with no training and the host of a BET talk show contained such staggering talent? Each woman is more than a match for the other, and together they create some of the best-acted scenes of the year. Their acting is matched in the story-telling department: Geoffrey Fletcher's script, based on the novel Push, by Sapphire, tells one hell of a story, one that possesses one of the biggest emotional wallops offered by film this year. The film is gritty, difficult, and at-times unpleasant, but it is ultimately defiant, a little hopeful, and...precious.

7. Up
Directed by Pete Docter
Y'all know I have quite the soft spot for Pixar. Even at their worst, Pixar films entertain me and move me more than most movies out these days. Up is far from their worst. The opening montage, set to Michael Giacchino's beautifully melancholy score, is far-and-away the best example of film-making this year, and contains enough of an emotional punch to KO the most stalwart of grumps. That the film opens with this scene is something of a minor miracle. It's more than a minor miracle that Up manages to live up to the promise given in the first five minutes. The rest of the film is fast-paced, often hilarious, and full of bracingly real emotional sentiments. And always, that beautiful image of the flying house, being dragged by an old man. I love this movie. I really do.

6. (500) Days of Summer
Directed by Marc Webb
I'll admit it up-front: I hate most romantic comedies. They're cliched, boring, and altogether not worth my time. (500) Days of Summer is very much the exception to this rule. Perhaps it's because, as the film itself says, "This is not a love story. It's a story about love." Marc Webb's ode to the rush of unrealistic expectations brought with first love, followed by the inevitable crush of rejection, never loses its grasp of reality, nor does it lose its optimism. Thus far, I've made the film sound like a bit of a drag. Rest assured: (500) Days of Summer is, for my dollar, the funniest movie of the year. The impromptu, post-coital musical number alone is worth the price of admission. The movie is anchored by its two charismatic leads, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, who should be legally obligated to appear in every movie.

5. The White Ribbon
Directed by Michael Haneke
Quite the change of pace from the last one, huh? The White Ribbon is quietly, casually horrific. Some people have dismissed German film-maker Michael Haneke's latest work as an easy way to try to explain how The Holocaust happened, but this cheap explanation hardly does the film any justice. The White Ribbon is a haunting treatise on the presence of evil in the world, and how easily it can infiltrate any system. The film is terrifying in its own right, if only because events that would send a sane man into a panic are regarded with something nearing apathy. Terrible things happen, and people move on. The film's beautiful black-and-white palette, as well as the sparse, almost Gothic production design, do much to enhance the film's mood of slowly creeping horror. The last shot is terribly chilling and impossible to forget.

4. Antichrist
Directed by Lars Von Trier
Here we continue our theme of films taking a hard look at evil in the world. Where The White Ribbon chose to sweep its evil under the rug, Antichrist gleefully throws it into the center ring. I don't think I've ever had such a truly disturbing film experience as I did watching Antichrist. Admittedly, this one definitely isn't for casual audiences. Those willing to suffer in the name of art, however, will be treated to one of the most layered, thought-provoking pieces I've encountered in quite some time. There's too much to see in this film to appreciate it fully with only one viewing (though a second viewing is almost unimaginable), as almost every moment of the film is saturated with dark philosophical undertones. Combine this with Antony Dod Mantle's impressionistic, painterly cinematography, and the courageous performances of Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, and you have one of the year's most compelling films.

3. Inglourious Basterds
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino's giddy, joyously violent revenge fantasy is, to put it lightly, one of the more unique films released this year. Tarantino's signature off-the-wall dialogue, as well as his unique visual sensibilities, are a decidedly odd marriage with the WWII iconography he uses, all combined with the trappings of a Spaghetti Western. To augment this bizarre meshing of images and ideas, we have Tarantino's usual moments of horrific violence, used as a punchline or poetry, depending on the heinous act being committed at the time. Inglourious Basterds is further elevated by its impeccable production design, as well as its ensemble: arguably the best work turned in by a group of actors this year, every character (and there're quite a few) turn in wonderful and memorable performances. Tarantino's hand of fate smashes through the film, wreaking bloody havoc on all involved, and, in the process, creating one of the best films of the year.

2. Avatar
Directed by James Cameron
I spend too much time already defending James Cameron, so I won't start it again here. Suffice to say that Avatar made me feel like a child, in the best possible sense. Avatar lifted me out of the cynical, jaded, film-dick persona into which I have so comfortably settled, and reminded me what it felt like to look at the world for the first time. This is one of the prettiest, most visually inventive movies you will ever see. Bypassing all the talk of the special effects, which are spectacular, just take a moment to consider the world of Pandora itself. An entire ecosystem, complete with a coherent evolutionary history, has been pulled out of thin air, beautifully realized through the work of all the talented artisans who worked on the film. Take all of that, throw in some anti-war/eco-friendly/treehugger messages (subtle as a sledgehammer but right up my alley), as well as some ridiculously epic set-pieces, and I'm sold...

1. The Hurt Locker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
...But nothing can compete with the best film of the year. The Hurt Locker is easily one of the best films of the past 10 years, and one of the better war films ever. Kathryn Bigelow captures the day-to-day life of an EOD squad with such laser-focus that all other concerns are obliterated. The film, structured as a series of vignettes, is a case-study in effective film-making. Every scene is almost unbearably tense and emotionally resonant. Perhaps some of the success comes from how the film avoids politics altogether. Not to say that moralizing in film has to be bad, of course: I suppose what I'm getting at is that politics don't matter to the men on the ground. What matters is the constant threat of violence, and the relationship with the men next to you. Bigelow's first priority is to recreate the experience of the men on the ground, and, as such, politics become second-string. What's left is an engrossing examination of the effects of wars on the men who fight them. The Hurt Locker is far and away the best film of the year.

Now, bear in mind that this is a favorites list, not a best list. Admittedly, I try to put the titles at the top which appeal to both my personal tastes and my knowledge of film, but I don't always succeed. If I were to list the year's 5 best, in order, it would probably look something like this:
1. The Hurt Locker
2. Antichrist
3. The White Ribbon
4. Inglourious Basterds
5. Either Up or Precious, depending on how I'm feeling.

The Zen Awards!!
Ahhhh....Let's all let our hair down, shall we? Hard part's over. The Zen Awards are my additions to the regular Oscar categories (it's newly named. If you have a better name for my personal awards, let me know, because this one kind of sucks). A couple of them are serious, but most are humorous. So, for your sake, I'll get the serious ones out of the way first. For categories like "Most Anthropomorphic Mustache This Side of Wilford Brimley" and "You're Not This Gay, but Dammit, You're Trying", keep reading.

Best Scenes of the Year
(I'll link to the ones that have found their way to youtube)
10. Wikus kicks some serious ass with a mechanized prawn suit-District 9
(this clip's a little edited up, but you'll get the idea)

This clip gets in because it's just badassery at its finest. This is the pinnacle of District 9's marriage of visual effects and documentary-style film-making.

9. The Morning After-(500) Days of Summer

This one makes it because it's both awesome and hilarious. Nothing like porking to make you break out into song-and-dance.

8. Last Mass-The White Ribbon
No link here. This is the final shot. To avoid spoilers, I'll simply say that it involves all of the villagers huddled together for the last mass before WWI breaks out, all looking around fearfully, not knowing who has been attacking whom, nor who will be next, as the choir starts to sing. Both beautiful and chilling.

7. Once Upon a Time In Nazi-Occupied France-Inglourious Basterds
No clip again. It's the opening scene: the French Farmer takes the Jew Hunter, Colonel Landa into his home. They drink, smoke, and discuss which animal Jews are most like. All the while, a Jewish family hides underneath the floorboards. This scene is unbelievably tense, and masterfully acted by Christoph Waltz.

6. Susie meets the other victims-The Lovely Bones
In Heaven, murder girl Susie Salmon begins to let go of her life on Earth. When she does, she meets the six other women her killer has claimed. I don't know why this scene effected me so much, but it's one hell of an emotional drain.

5. Tavern Shoot-Out-Inglourious Basterds
I don't want to spoil anything here, so I'll say this: If you've seen the movie, you know what I mean. Mistakes are made, things go wrong, and the tension piles on like an avalanche. By the end of this scene, I felt like I could hardly breathe. Its climax is one of the most suddenly, horrifically violent scenes in recent memory.

4. Mary's Confession-Precious

It's a short scene, but I hope it gives you some idea of the best-acted scene of the year, as well as the emotional climax of an already emotionally-draining movie. If Mo'Nique doesn't win an Oscar, there is absolutely no justice in the world.

3. Jake walks for the first time-Avatar
I could have chosen a bigger, more dramatic scene from this movie but I went with this one: when Jake first enters his avatar body. He stands up, starts to walk, and then starts running, just because he can. I thought this; parapalegic Jake regaining the life he once had, to be the heart and soul of the film.

2. The Sniper Duel-The Hurt Locker

Another movie chock-full of great scenes. After some deliberation, I had to go with the mid-film sniper duel for the win. It's intense, almost tactile in its knack for visualizing sensation, and acted wonderfully; I particularly enjoy the complete meltdown of Eldritch.

1. Married Life-Up

Not much that I can say for this clip that it doesn't say for itself. That's movie-making, y'all.


The "I'm Too Awesome to Have an Award Named After Me" Award for Outstanding Young Actors-Bailee Madison, Brothers
Brothers was a steaming pile of garbage, but the best part of the movie, far and away, was the performance of Bailee Madison, as Tobey Maguire's oldest daughter. She alone captured the emotionally tricky task of having your father return from the dead.
Runers up: Abigail Breslin, Zombieland, all the children from The White Ribbon

The New Image Award
For movies that show us something completely original and unique.
Pandora-Avatar. James Cameron created an entire world from scratch and was nice enough to share it with us.
The Three Beggars-Antichrist. We've seen grief, pain, and despair in film before, but not in the form of a doe with a dead fetus hanging out of it, a fox that eats its own intestines, and a crow that refuses to die.
The Other World-Coraline. Beatifully animated, Coraline's other world is as sumptuously realized as it is inventive.

Best Inanimate Object in a Movie
-The Bear-Jew's punch-operated shotgun, Inglourious Basterds. Because he punches someone in the face. With a shotgun.
-all of Carl's possessions, Up. For being thematically resonant, aesthetically appealing, and altogether adorable.
-the banjo, Zombieland. Both for making a Deliverance reference and killing a zombie. It's more accomplished than I am.
-flaming, sinking ice-G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra. This ice must be magical to burn and sink at the same time.
THE WINNER: Megan Fox, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. A technological marvel. You can only tell that it's not a real actress when you look into its dead, soulless eyes.

The Child I'd Most Like to Punch in the Face With my Vehicle
Jae Head-The Blind Side. I swear to Cthulu, this kind of acting should be punishable by death.

The "You're Not This Gay, but Dammit, You're Trying" Award
Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law-Sherlock Holmes. I eagerly anticipate the release of the Director's Cut DVD, in which they include all the scenes they cut of Holmes and Watson making out, buying doilies together, and drinking tea with upturned pinkies.

Most Anthropomorphic Mustache This Side of Wilford Brimley
Matt Damon-The Informant! There aren't words to describe the level of silliness that Matt Damon's facial hair attains.

Most Delightfully Ridiculous Sub-Plot
District 9. The prawns develop a nasty cat food addiction, fueled by Nigerian gangsters who want to eat the aliens. ...Did I just type that sentence and mean it?

And Finally:

The 5 Worst Films of the Year
5. Amelia
Cliched, overblown, thoroughly ridiculous. Hilary Swank and Richard Gere should be euthanized.

4. All About Steve
Sandra Bullock doing her best not to look like she's completely retarded. She fails.

3. The Ugly Truth
The only thing uglier than this movie is the fact that people actually liked it.

2. The Final Destination
Actually, at only 82 minutes long, it's actually the year's worst short film.

The Peter Travers "Did I Just See That" Award for the Biggest Pile of Crap to Smear its Way onto Screens
Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. Seriously, is there anything about this movie worth liking? I don't think so. And I should know: I've seen it twice.

There we have it. Part 1: down. Three more to go. What do you think? Does my list make sense? What fits? What doesn't?

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