Sunday, December 27, 2009
Best Movies of 2009
Generally, when I've done a best movies of the year before the end of the year it's a preliminary list, as I'm waiting to see many of the Oscar hopefuls that have just been released. While I'll probably do an update in a few weeks, I'm not so sure that's needed this year, as many of the year-end Oscar hopefuls have turned out to be critical bombs (The Lovely Bones, It's Complicated, and most notably, Nine). It wasn't the best year from dramas either, with many of the year's best films actually coming from science fiction of all genres. As of now, my 10 favorite films of 2009:
1. Up in the Air. This smart film, half drama, half comedy, was refreshing, honest, stylish and fun. George Clooney excelled as Ryan Bingham, a man so adverse to commitment as to live his life without the attachments of family, friends or home, even "lecturing" about its perks to the self-help crowd. Both supporting actresses were ravishing too, breakout Anna Kendrick as the whipper-snapper younger woman who nails the early 20-something combination of ambitious and naivety, and Anna Kendrick as the lived-and-learned older woman still up for an adventure (one of my favorite scenes in the film is when the two women compare notes about what they look for in a man. Kendrick, like many of her age, has a laundry list of requirements, while Farmiga presents a shorter, more practical list, no doubt winnowed down by experience).
2. Avatar. I was too young to see Star Wars in the theater (a wee 2 months when it was released), but I've certainly seen its impact in movies during my lifetime. This is another one of those types of movies--something so different as to be a game-changer. Yes, Avatar has its flaws: cut-out characters, predictable story--but it's a gorgeous visual feast of a movie, with computer-generated landscapes that are breathtaking in their scope, color and detail, and, for the first time ever, CG-generated characters that are as believable as the screen's flesh-and-blood counterparts. James Cameron's movie is best experienced in 3D, which enhances the audience's participation in the characters' experience of a whole new world, as well as our own experience of a new kind of filmmaking.
3. (500) Days of Summer. This is the most original romantic comedy ever, a movie that far exceeds the boundaries of that limited genre to become something fresh, smart and charming. This film surprises at every turn, messing with the film's chronology, splitting the screen to show alternate realities, and breaking out in a joyous musical number. Dismiss it as a "rom-com" to your peril.
4. Star Trek. J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek with this thrill-a-minute vehicle that manages to capture many of the best attributes of Star Trek--including a cast who miraculously nods appropriately to its forebearers while making each character wholly their own--while presenting something new and exciting too. Chris Pine in particular is a brilliant captain Kirk, nailing his larger-than-life smart but reckless persona without it being a Shatner impersonation.
5. An Education. The relationship between an on-the-cusp-of-adulthood girl and a 30-something conman manages to be simultaneously charming and creepy in An Education, an enlivened look at British society just before the cultural revolution of the '60s. Peter Sarsgaard is fantastic as the con artist charmer, while Carey Mulligan gives one of the year's best breakout performances as the teen girl.
6. Inglourious Basterds. Quetin Tarantino's latest, a genre-blending World War II "revenge" film, found the director mellow his over-the-top visual style just a bit to inject this visually stunning film with enough realism to make it click. Christophe Waltz gives a truly creepy performance as "The Jew Hunter."
7. Precious. It's a little over-the-top, but I still really enjoyed the human drama and spirit of Precious. Gabourey Sidibe was amazing as the title character, and Mo'Nique deserves all the praise she's received as the unbelievably cruel mother, but I also really liked Paula Patton as the bleeding heart teacher.
8. The Hurt Locker. This movie was hard to watch, which was why it was so good. It really brought the horrors of war to life firsthand with an ensemble of actors that showed the cracking strains of human despair beneath their shields of soldiery bravery.
9. District 9. One of the year's biggest surprises, District 9 is shot like a low-budget documentary yet its visual effects are marvelous. The story about an alien spaceship hovering over South Africa while its inhabitants struggle below in a detainee camp feels wholly new and original, despite cribbing from sci-fi classics like V, Aliens and The Fly. It's creepy and gross but also heartwarming.
10. Invictus. Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon deliver strong performances in this--the other great film this year set in South Africa--telling the story of Nelson Mandela's efforts to unite the post-apartheid country.
Honorable mentions: A Single Man, Tom Ford's gorgeous directorial debut; The Messenger, Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson's take on war-bruised men on a thankless errand; the delicious cooking of Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia; and the heartwarming Up!.
Disappointments: The colorless, by-the-numbers Watchmen adaptation; the pretentious and boring Away We Go; and the too weird A Serious Man.