Sunday, February 6, 2011

Top Films of 2009

I have decided that I will post my top movies of the past several years. Provides insight into my mind and a little film history.

I am a bit late in writing this, but it took forever for Last Station to appear in Atlanta theaters. My apologies.

1. Up in the Air -- Jason Retiman's first film since his wry and comic, Juno, showed the deft touch he has in adapting source material and his ability of drawing out great performances from his actors. The film, based on a rather mediocre novel by Walter Kirn, follows Ryan Bingham (played by the movie star of the moment, George Clooney), a man whose job forces him to live "up in the air" and fire people. The book was published before 9/11 and is now mostly outdated in its analysis of the airline industry, but Reitman focuses on Bingham's rather unglamorous profession, transforming the job Bingham hates in the novel into a wake-up call for people across the country. A queer zen-like appreciation of non-attachment follows Bingham everywhere. The two female characters played to perfection by Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga (whom I wish could win the Oscar) do not appear in the novel and Reitman has created a triangle of characters, who shed light on another. The shocking climax that literally draws gasps from its audience is a clever and necessary ploy that shows that Bingham will never be domesticated.

2. Up-- Pixar will seemingly never fail. A rather unfeasible plot--a man flies away in his house to South America--becomes a touching meditation on aging and loneliness. The first seventeen minutes of the film narrates the love story of a couple with heartbreaking precision. The simple, syncopated score of Michael Giacchino succeeds in pulling the heartstrings at the appropriate moments. Pixar should probably make a decidedly horrible film next in order to keep our expectations reasonable.

3. The Hurt Locker--Kathryn Bigelow's well observed war movie became the most lauded film of 2009, and for good reason. A film that succeeds by not professing a clear political aim, but rather narrate the story of a scarred bomb defuser. Bigelow's precise directorial ability allows her action sequences to be free from the frenzied, confusing and sometimes dull sequences of films like Transformers, or Terminator Salvation. Some of the press surrounding this movie is rather inane. People speak of Bigelow in terms close to hagiography. They seem to ask, "how could a woman direct a war movie?" Bigelow's achievement is NOT directing a war movie, it is directing a great movie. Perhaps, with her Oscar win, women will be granted the ability to direct films that are not in the Nancy Myers or Nora Ephron stream of romantic comedies.

4. 500 Days of Summer--This delightful and ironic take on the romantic comedy created one of this year's most interesting female characters, played by the luminous Zooey Deschanel. Finally, a woman was allowed to be indecisive and unsure about her relationship, and maybe even shocking "just not that into" the guy. The interplay between Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, perhaps our two finest young actors working steadily in independent cinema, is scripted and shot so well that there is a sense that the audience has invaded this couple's privacy. Even the ridiculous musical sequence in the film shines because of the loss of rationality that comes from falling in love. If only more romantic comedies were as good as this, they wouldn't be relegated to the domain of "chick flicks."

5. Sin Nombre--I resisted watching Cary Fukugawa's film about illegal immigrants attempting to cross over to America, but this intense work, like the Hurt Locker, told a superb story without a heavy-handed approach. The story follows a young man escaping from a dangerous gang and a girl who travels with her father towards New Jersey. The many obstacles and much violence they encounter on the road north adds harrowing moments to a story we already know to be difficult. At the end of the movie when the girl telephones her stepmother from a pay phone outside a Sam's Club in Texas, one is left wondering, if someone works that hard to get here, shouldn't they be allowed to stay?

6. Il Divo-- This biopic about former Italian Prime Minister, Giulio Andreotti, was a superb example of a genre often derided for being shallow and lackluster. Andreotti, who has been continually indicted for ties to the Sicilian mafia, corruption and even conspiracy to murder a journalist, is the perfect tragic figure, a man whose own hubris spelled his downfall, but Andreotti's brilliance came from his uncanny ability to emerge unscathed. (He has never served time and all convictions he has faced have been overturned). He is the living Machiavelli.

7. An Education--Nick Hornby's adaptation of Lynn Barber's memoir of growing up in England, fighting for a spot in 1960's-era Cambridge, has made Carey Mulligan into a star. This is a movie that should delight smart, pretty girls everywhere, girls who hunger after knowledge and experience, but who cannot seem to sate this thirst. Lynn's affair with a 30-year-old cad (played by Mr. Maggie Gyllenhall, Peter Sarsgaard) makes her believe that an academic education may not be all that it is cracked up to be, and an education in the world may be more desirable and fun. Of course, the cad turns out to be a cad, so everything is tightly resolved at the end, with books beating moonlit strolls. The film, however, expresses something all members of academia can relate to.

8. The Cove--By far, the best documentary of the year, The Cove follows a group of animal activists, seeking to uncover the barbaric practices of a group of Japanese whalers, who massacre up to 25,000 dolphins a year. The film's palpable tension forces the audience to sit on their seats, as if it was a movie in the Saw franchise. This is the way that political activism cinema should look, take note Michael Moore.

9. A Single Man--Tom Ford's directorial debut has been criticized for its obsessive aesthetic quality, looking a bit too much like a Calvin Klein perfume ad than a finely wrought character study. It is true that the movie cares a lot about how it looks, but Colin Firth's grounded, sober and subtle performance makes this film worth watching. A performance that could have been maudlin is handled with such ease that the audience can't help but root for the poor English professor who is psychologically distressed and grieving for his dead lover. A key scene with Julianne Moore adds some needed color (literally) and humor to the film.

10. District 9 and Star Trek--Great Science Fiction films returned this year with a reboot to a classic franchise and the excellent south African drama about aliens landing in Cape Town. Science Fiction does not have to be solely about amazing effects (take note James cameron) but subtle story lines and well delineated and tortured characters.

11. Precious-- Another film based on a mediocre book that far exceeds the source material. Though there are moments that director Lee Daniels has forced a bit too much, the film succeeds with its brilliant performances from Gabby Sidibe and Mo'nique. For God's skae, Daniels was even able to make Mariah Carey seem human, something she can't seem to do when out in the real world. (Sidenote: why does this film require the subtitle, "based on the novel by sapphire"? i am still unsure).

12. Inglourious Basterds--Tarantino's new film is disturbing and frustrating but also fascinating. There are scenes that are illuminating and insightful (e.g. the opening scene with the French Jews under the floorboards), but I found the Brad Pitt story line tedious. The ahistorical ending fits with Tarantino's aesthetic that characters like Hitler must always be killed in the end, but the historian in me cringed. I do enjoy the fact that copyright forced Tarantino to become a bad speller.

13. Last Station--This dramatic retelling of the last days of Leo Tolstoy's life is held up by the amazing Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, who after 50 years in the cinema has received his first Oscar nomination. A film that deserves more recognition than it has so far received.

14. Julie and Julia
--Meryl Streep should tak eherself out of the running for OScars, just like Oprah did with the Daytime Emmys, because she will reach twenty nominations this decade, I am sure of it. As the oft-impersonated Julia Child, Streep did it again, making a performance that was not caricature but deft and appropriate. And a film with lots of food. They should start using Smell-o-vision again.

15. Crazy Heart--Although the film is clearly Tender Mercies, Part Deux--Robert Duvall even makes a cameo performance in this film--Crazy Heart succeeds with Jeff Bridges celebrated performance. The songs from T-Bone Burnett don't hurt, either. (however, can Jeff Bridges sing the song on the Oscar telecast, instead of stupid ryan Bingham. I ABHOR his voice. utterly loathe him).

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